Starting in the late 1970’s, engineers began studying options to develop a much more capable strategic heavy lift transport. The aircraft’s primary mission would be to carry Energia-Buran components, but engineers also planned on using the new airplane to serve as a launch platform for a small air-launched reusable spacecraft called the MAKS (Multipurpose aerospace system).
The Antonov An-124 Ruslan Cargo Transport, under development in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, was a logical starting point. The strategic lift cargo plane was already set to be the largest and most capable transport to ever enter service, and it was expected to be ready in time for Energia-Buran. But even the An-124 wasn’t quite large or powerful enough.
Rather than design an entirely new aircraft from scratch, engineers lengthened the An-124’s fuselage and added a new center section to increase the aircraft’s overall wing span. To give the plane more power, they added two additional engines, giving the plane a total of 309,600 pounds of thrust.
Engineers also redesigned the vertical stabilizer to accommodate larger components, and designed a new landing gear to distribute the plane’s immense weight across 32 wheels. The new supersized jet would be designated as the AN-225 Mriya.
The enormous plane made its first flight on December 21, 1998, one month after the first launch of an unmanned Buran spacecraft. But the successes of the Energia-Buran and the An-225 were soon overshadowed by the fact that the Soviet Union was going bankrupt. It meant the Buran would never launch again, and the An-225 no longer had a mission.
Today the An-225 is used to transport cargo that would otherwise be impossible to fly. But the plane’s outsized cargo lifting capabilities also come with an outsized cost. At upwards of $30,000 an hour to operate, the An-225 only flies when no other aircraft can do the job. But as a one of a kind aircraft in a class of its own, the An-225 still draws crowds wherever it lands.