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Several programs designed to reduce these costs preceded EELV, including the Advanced Launch System program (1987-1990), the National Launch System program (1991-1992), and the Spacelifter program (1993). Each provided valuable technical data but failed to fully address the nation's space-launch needs for a variety of reasons. After the Challenger disaster in 1986 the first proposal for a new launch system, called the National Launch System, foundered. The next one, a modular family of "Spacelifter" vehicles, was stalled by lack of support. Spacelifter was proposed by the Aldridge Commission in 1992 as a family of low-cost launch vehicles.

In July 1992, a special task group of the Space Policy Advisory Board reviewed the nation's Space Launch Strategy approved by the President in July 1991. The report contained the findings and recommendations of the Task Group. The Task Group has provided a set of recommendations from a 'national' perspective to improve the nation's space launch capability, make the US more competitive in the international marketplace, and reduce the cost of government space launch operations. The Commission concluded that the US should start a single, completely new, 'Spacelifter' space launch vehicle program. The Spacelifter program would focus on the medium performance range, but be 'modular' in its performance capability. The task group also recommended a transition plan to phase out the older and expensive space launch vehicles, including the Space Shuttle. The task group further recommended that a centralized management structure be established to oversee Spacelifter and other space launch activities.

The end of the military competition with the Soviet Union heightened political concerns over economic competition with Europe and Japan, notably in the area of launch vehicles. The report on The Future of the U.S. Space Launch Capability, recommended that "A single `core' space launch vehicle should be persued that, through modular performance improvements, can meet all the medium and heavier lift requirements (20,000 to 50,000 pounds to low earth orbit) of civil, DoD, and commercial users." This new "Spacelifter" booster was intended to provide lower launch costs and greater reliability and flexibility than existing systems, which have evolved from ballistic missiles originally developed nearly four decades ago.

Recognizing that at least 85 percent of US launch requirements are in the range of 20,000 pounds - or less - to low Earth orbit, the Spacelifter program would focus initially on a medium-lift capability to satisfy most national payload requirements, but would have growth potential to fulfill heavier lift requirements up to 50,000 pounds.

The Task Group suggested that the development of a personnel launch system and a cargo transfer and return vehicle compatible with the Spacelifter could allow a phaseout of the Space Shuttle system by about 2005, with prudent time for overlap.

This proposal followed on the failure of the Bush Administration to secure Congressional support for the National Launch System (NLS), a family of intermediate and heavy launch vehicles which would support military and commercial missions, and well as the Space Exploration Initiative.

However, many in Congress regarded the new Spacelifter as little more than a new name for NLS. And during the 1992 campaign, Gore had criticized the Bush Administration for initiating an unaffordable diversity of launch vehicle development projects, particularly citing the NLS. Instead, Gore advocated a less costly strategy focused on up-grades to existing launch systems, such as the Delta, Atlas and Titan. Although the 1994 Clinton Defense budget included a modest request for Spacelifter, it seemed that the development of new launch vehicles did not occupy a central place in the Clinton Administration's space strategy.

Following the cancellation of Spacelifter, with space-launch costs still rising and no solution to the problem, Congress requested a Space Launch Modernization Plan from DoD. Subsequently, Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Moorman, with participants from the military, civil, industry, and intelligence communities, led the Space Launch Modernization Study in 1994. Of the four proposed approaches to lowering the cost of space launch, the Air Force budgeted to support the second option - evolve current expendable launch systems.

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