A friend opened the discussion with “Space Shuttle, RIP or good riddance?” Both, I said. It’s sad to see it go, it’s been the workhorse of American space science for decades. But it really should have been gone long, long before this.
As I said in the paper, it was obvious ever since the Columbia disaster that the design was a horrible mess of compromises. NASA had wanted to get people into space for the sake of scientific research, but they couldn’t afford a vehicle. The Defense Department were willing to contribute, but they wanted to put large payloads into orbit. Anyone putting safety first would have said those are two different missions that require two utterly different machines; one big dumb heavy-lifter to fling stuff into orbit, which no person in their right mind would even stand near never mind sit on top of, and one uncompromisingly designed to get people into and back from space safely. But thanks to budgetary pressure, they cobbled it together as one thing. The Space Shuttle was really the first SUV, an overpowered truck with added passenger seats.
If the right decisions had been made after Challenger there need never have been a Columbia disaster. If they had been taken after Columbia, there might be new vehicles in place by now – vehicles that would be both safer and cheaper to run. The original error may have been made by the Reagan administration, but it was compounded by every subsequent one. To the point now that, really for the first time since the Space Age began, Americans can no longer go into orbit – not without the help of the Russians at least.
The Chinese can.
It may be perfectly true that the lunar missions were done for prestige and bragging rights rather than any scientific or economic reason, but they helped the US win a propaganda war. The lack of a leading role in space exploration makes America look exactly like what it fears itself to be – a power on the wane.