From James Oberg, Six Things We Lose With the End of the Shuttle Program:
Lost Capability No. 1: Gentle delivery of large modules for attachment to existing complexes.
Compared with other means, the shuttle provides an environment in its payload bay with relatively minimal acceleration, vibration, and noise, and that means very large components can be built a lot less expensively.
Comment No. 1: That may be true, but if the cost of the shuttle launch exceeds the cost of an expendable launch and its payload by an order of magnitude, how far backwards have we gone in getting capability on-orbit? (And the expendable launch vehicles that deliver cargo to the ISS do so in a non-gentle manner?)
Lost capability No. 2: Bringing cargo down gently.
Comment No. 2: OK, but how many things, besides people, does the shuttle need to bring back, let alone gently?
Lost capability No. 3: Safe "proximity operations."
Comment No. 3: Proximity operations to accomplish…what? Repairing Hubble when it would have been less costly to manufacture and launch a new one? And while we’re at it, how about the Swedish Prisma mission, which is flying down to seven-meters of separation. Can unmanned proximity space ops be done safely at closer than seven meters? I’d count on it.
Lost capability No. 4: Temporary deployment of a workbench in orbit for experiments, repairs, and other assembly.
Comment No. 4: Again, this is great is you’re building/assembling a space station or the likes (“Please pass me that tethered space Skil-Saw”). But the value of the space shuttle and the ISS, versus what could be accomplished via robotic space, is no bargain to begin with.
Lost capability No. 5: High-precision research orbits with specialized instrumentation.
…ground-mapping radar missions needed to be navigated so precisely that data from multiple missions could be overlaid as if they had been acquired by several shuttles flying simultaneously in formation.
Comment No. 5: Yes, you need a precise track to radar map. So would that be like this German robotic ground-mapping radar mission currently being done and which will result in the most detailed-ever 3D map of the earth’s surface?
Lost capability No. 6: Flexibility of crew composition.
Comment No. 6: Flexible crew composition is only important if you need a crew. If you don’t need a crew (consider at minimum the charity/sponsorship rides given to John Glenn and Bill Nelson), then the importance just seems to…drift away.
At the end of the day, the things we lose when we lose the shuttle are those things the shuttle does. I guess that makes sense, but it also seems to go without saying.
I remain convinced that I have seen the future of space and that it remains unmanned.