The Air Force has decided to put its $3.3 billion space shuttle launch complex at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in mothballs, meaning that no shuttle launches will take place on the West Coast for "an extended period of time," congressional and Pentagon sources said yesterday.
The first Air Force shuttle had been scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg this month in what was to have been the beginning of routine shuttle launches of secret reconnaissance satellites into polar orbit. Those plans were delayed when the Challenger broke apart on Jan. 28.
A decision to put the West Coast shuttle launch complex on standby had been expected, especially as it became clear that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's remaining three orbiters would not fly again before 1988.
Because of the extraordinary safety precautions expected when shuttle flights resume, NASA officials have concluded that the remaining orbiters should be based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, though landings will continue to take place at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
A Pentagon official who declined to be identified said formal disclosure of the decision is awaiting an announcement by President Reagan on whether to build an orbiter to replace Challenger.
Flying from Vandenberg was considered somewhat more risky, not only because there has been no previous experience from the site but because the first flight was to introduce a new lightweight solid rocket booster designed to increase the shuttle's payload capacity.