The Energia-Buran was the most expensive and ambitious Soviet space project in history. As the Soviet Union’s answer to the US Space Shuttle, the rival reusable launch system was designed to match any potential strategic advantage offered by the Space Shuttle. But the Soviets had a unique challenge on their hands.

Like all manned Soviet spacecraft, the Energia-Buran would be launched at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, but it would be assembled at production facilities in the west, which were thousands of kilometers away. Unlike earlier Soviet spacecraft – like the Soyuz family of rockets – Energia-Buran components would be too large to be transported using railways. The Soviets explored building new widened rail lines as well as building entirely new production facilities at Baikonur, but these solutions were considered too expensive and would take too long. The most practical solution was to airlift components.

In a rush to meet their airlift needs, the Soviets put VM-T Alants into service, but the aircraft were only intended to be a stopgap measure. They were too small and underpowered to fly fully assembled spacecraft components. The VM-T Alant also needed to make refueling stops along the way to the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

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 plane to serve as a launch platform for a small air-launched reusable spacecraft called the MAKS (Multipurpose aerospace system). The Antonov An-124 Ruslan, under development in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, was a logical starting point. The plane would 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.

Without the need to airlift spacecraft components, the An-225 was paraded around at western airshows while the Soviets struggled to find an alternative use for the giant plane. Proposals included using the An-225 to deploy ekranoplans for maritime rescue missions, using the plane as a launch platform for a British space plane (HOTOL) and there was even a proposal to convert the plane into an airliner.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and before long the An-225 was sent to storage outside Kiev Ukraine where it was scavenged for parts. The world’s largest plane now seemed destined for the scrap yard. But the world’s largest plane was given a new lease in the early 2000’s. After years in storage, 20 million dollars were invested into new engines, modernized avionics and a new strengthened cargo hold.

Today the An-225 is used to transport cargo that would otherwise be impossible to fly. But the plane’s outsized capabilities also come with an outsized cost. At upwards of $30,000 an hour to operate, the 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.

Source: YouTube

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