I am a huge fan of space exploration. I love watching spacecraft of all sorts take off. I read every article about spaceflight I can find. This does NOT make me a fan of NASA.
Back when the shuttle program was first getting started, I was overjoyed. I believed that the shuttle was merely the opening sequence of a long-term program for getting the US back into space in a big way. I knew that the shuttle was only good for Low-Earth Orbit missions, but it could have been an important first step to the proper exploration and exploitation of space.
Alas, it was not to be. Rather than using the shuttles as the work horses for building the near-Earth infrastructure of mankind’s eventual expansion through the solar system, the managers at NASA concentrated on short-term goals intended solely to keeping the shuttle program in business. Funding was yanked from pure science and research projects for this purpose, forcing long-term exploration and research programs to forego important missions and pare essential missions to the bone and beyond. Granted that this was due to Congressional funding restrictions (what is the opposite of progress? Congress), the leaders at NASA never managed to develop or present a long-range plan to Congress to justify greater funding. Instead, NASA concentrated on talking up the supposed cost-effective measures of the shuttles. This gradually morphed into sustaining the shuttle program (which was very dramatic and therefore popular with the public) to the exclusion- and detriment- of actual space exploration and science.
This laser-focus on the shuttles- which became political issues due to their popularity- meant that engineers and scientists at NASA were gradually overshadowed by political hacks and accountants. The result was the total loss of two orbiters with all hands. The shuttles are replaceable (hardware- however expensive- can be replaced), the crews were not. The resulting political shitstorm shut down the shuttle program for years. This should not have been a serious setback- IF the shuttle program was only one of many projects underway at NASA. Since the shuttle program had become the be-all and end-all of the Space Program, this political witch-hunt effectively shut down America’s space program for the best part of a decade. We are still trying to recover from these setbacks.
Some people have rightfully questioned spending public money on the Space Program. The questions are valid- every citizen should question how public funds are spent. While the exploration of space has not yet become the exploitation of space (and is therefore still not returning the massive investment), the spin-offs from space exploration have more than paid for the entire program- several times over. It is nearly impossible to get away from products developed by and/or for the space program which have been adapted to civilian uses in this country. If you have ever been to a hospital or listened to the radio, you have personally benefitted from the Space Program. Space exploration spin-offs permeate our society.
Many years ago, I wrote a letter to NASA, describing a program for the gradual exploration and exploitation of the solar system using off-the-shelf technology. It would have been slow and expensive, but relatively safe. Gradual steps- such as building more launch facilities around the world (which would both enrich the nations where the facilities were built and improve the infrastructure in those nations); development of regular, reusable orbiters to build facilities in orbit; and building permanent, manned construction and research stations in orbit- would slowly but surely allow human expansion away from this planet.
It has been more than 30 years since the last human left the moon. I will repeat that: THIRTY F***ING YEARS. Managers at NASA have testified before Congress that a return to the Moon was impossible for at least another two decades. This is an inexcusable retreat from the (literal) heights reached by the Apollo program. We- as a nation- have been resting on our laurels for too long. Humans will indeed explore and exploit space. Humans will colonize and explore the solar system. But they almost certainly will not be speaking English. And the only Americans involved will be invited guests of other nations who aren’t ruled by short-sighted incompetents and will therefore reap the benefits of a useful space program.
Current Status: High Dudgeon
Music: Scotch on the Rocks, by the King’s Own Border Guards
Relevant reading: Mining the Sky