Correcting a Policy Mistake
The debate regarding producing another shuttle orbiter to replace Challenger continued through most of summer 1986, as did the conflict over the future role of the shuttle. If the shuttle were to be removed from its role in launching commercial and foreign payloads, after losing its planned monopoly in 1985 on national security launches, the basic premise upon which the shuttle program had been approved and carried out before the Challenger accident—that the vehicle could provide regular and affordable access to space for a wide variety of payloads, not only for the U.S. government but also for commercial and foreign users—would be abandoned. The decision to make the shuttle the sole U.S. means of access to space would have been recognized as a very significant policy mistake. The result of the post-Challenger debate was a set of decisions embodied in a December 1986 directive on “United States Space Launch Strategy.” That directive set out a new pathway for assuring U.S. access to space, and changed the role of the space shuttle, from being the primary means of access to space for all U.S. government payloads and an active participant in the global competition for commercial launch contracts, to being a system devoted to launching almost exclusively NASA payloads, carrying out various operations in orbit, and eventually launching, assembling, and servicing elements of the space station.