The comments to this recent question disagree on whether the U.S. briefly abandoned other launch systems in favor of the Space Shuttle.

The Shuttle was designed to be capable of bringing all U.S. crew and cargo into and out of Earth orbit. However, the actual frequency of launches was never high enough to meet this goal. While the Shuttle continued as the exclusive vehicle for crew transport and cargo return, other launchers were being used to send up cargo.

The question therefore is: Were there any families of launchers that were discontinued because of the Shuttle, only to later return to fill the launch capacity that the Shuttle couldn't fulfill?

(The question would be best answered by considering each of the launcher families in use at that time.)

  • $\begingroup$ My initial answer was quite wrong, but has been corrected and improved. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2019 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ For the record, I never meant to imply that any launchers were actually discontinued, and I'm not sure that Greg did either. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    May 14, 2019 at 19:01

1 Answer 1


Despite the stated goal of shifting all US launches to the shuttle, all three major US uncrewed launcher families of the era remained in production. Each family reduced production and launch rates significantly during the early shuttle era (1981-1986), but I think there was a general sense even before the 1986 Challenger disaster that the shuttle wasn't going to meet its flight tempo goals easily.

Titan production was slowed, but production of the Titan 34D bridged the gap between the Titan III and Titan IV. The Titan family flew only one successful mission out of 4 attempts in 1985 and 1986, but after Challenger, the Titan IV program was expanded, flying until its retirement in 2005.

Here's a bar chart of Titan launches:

Bar plot of Titan launches 1959-2005, with local maxima of 27 launches in 1963 and 1965, 11 in 1972, 12 in 1975, and a long tail of 1-7 per year from 1977 to 2005

From this overview of the Atlas family, it appears Atlas never stopped flying during the shuttle era.

Here's the chart for the Atlas family:

Bar plot of Atlas launches 1957-2021, local maxima of 47 in 1962, 45 in 1966, 14 in 1978, 13 in 1995, 10 in 2014-2015, and a minimum of 1 launch in 1989

Likewise the Delta family; it came close to going out of production, and didn't fly at all in 1985, but was never quite discontinued.

Here's the chart for the Delta family:

Bar plot of Thor and Delta launches 1957-2021, maxima of 50 in 1959 and 1962, 16 in 1975, 13 in 1990 and 1998, and a minimum of 0 in 1985

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    $\begingroup$ Bad memories of Shuttle, Titan, and Delta launch failures in 1986, and an Atlas in 1987. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2019 at 15:08
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It's hard for me to think of any loss of an uncrewed launcher as a big tragedy compared to Challenger, but losing Titans with big recon satellites back to back in '85-'86 must have been pretty hard on the NRO. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2019 at 15:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It was not a good time. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2019 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove: The NRO, and probably all the people who worked on the rocket only to see it go RUD. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Jul 21, 2019 at 0:32

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