The theme of the 1980s could be "Shuttle to Space Command to Star Wars to Space Station (Part 1)." The 80s decade began with final ground and air testing of the Space Transportation System (STS), leading to the first manned shuttle launch in April 1981. But the high hopes of the American reusable manned space system were dashed in January 1986 with the destruction during launch of the Space Shuttle CHALLENGER. It took over two years for the civilian space program to recover from this disaster. But recover it did, and the shuttle system remained the heart and soul of the NASA program during this decade. Because of the budget drain to fund development of the shuttle, only two interplanetary probes were designed, built and launched in the 1980s. They were Galileo destined for Jupiter, and Magellan bound for Venus. NASA continued with its responsibilities for advanced spacecraft technology, space science and earth application satellites.
In the 1980s, American military launch vehicles fared no better than their civilian counterpart when within a six-month period, the Air Force experienced two Titan 34D launch failures between 1985 and 1986. But the 1980s could be called the beginning of the maturity of Air Force space system. With the ever growing capability of military spacecraft, though acquired and handled by Space Systems Division at Los Angeles Air Force Base (an acquisition command base), many of these space systems were operational controlled by many organizations. By the early 80s, the military establishment felt that a formal operational space organization was needed and should come into being. In 1982, Air Force Space Command was created. It was also during the 1980s in the Reagan administration that the Space Defense Initiative or SDI, commonly called Star Wars, began. It was to provide an anti-ballistic missile shield for the whole country. Many of the military space missions such as early warning, communications, nuclear detection, global positioning and weather either began, matured or were enhanced in this time period.
It was in the late 1970s and continuing into the 1980s that the Soviet Union found a focus for its space leadership which it has not relinquished to this day. This is in the area of extended stay manned space stations. Starting with Salyut 6 in 1977, continuing with Salyut 7 in 1986, and finalized with the MIR space complex, Russian cosmonauts have been continuously in orbit since then. Two more segments of the MIR space station were launched in the 80s, the Kvant and the Kvant 2 modules. Because the Americans had a reusable space shuttle, the Soviet Union attempted to design and build their own. It was launched twice in the late 80s, both unmanned. They continued their exploration of Venus (with their Venera series) and Mars (with the new Phobos series) and attempted a rather complex dual mission spacecraft, Vega, which went past Venus and then flew by Haley's Comet.
Europe continued to develop it own internal spacecraft and launch vehicle design and manufacturing capability. With the emergence of ESA, development of the Ariane family of boosters began. Launch of the first Ariane 1 was in 1979, and by the mid-1980s, ESA had an excellent foothold in the communications satellites launch business. With the CHALLENGER explosion and the hiatus of American boosters for two years, ESA and Ariane took control of the launch business and have not relinquished it. The mainstay of the present boosters, the Ariane-4, began design in the mid-80s with first launch in 1988. In the area of satellite design, ESA took the lead in developing a European weather system working in conjunction with the American NOAA GEOS system. It also began design and manufacture of the French SPOT remote sensing satellite system, and took part in the Giotti interplanetary probe to Haley's Comet.
Asia continued its development of its own systems, which now included Japan, PRC and India. India began to flex its technological muscles and develop its own satellites and launch vehicles. Many Middle East countries also began purchasing commercial communications satellites from either the United States or Europe and operating them for the own regional use.