What can you say about the excellent article How to Avoid Repeating the Debacle That Was the Space Shuttle? Well, let’s try this: it’s on target, offers astute observations, and favors robotic space for a variety of reasons.
The shuttle failed to deliver on cost ($1.5 billion plus per launch), schedule (said to be capable of 65 launches per year, never did more than nine), and performance (said to have 1 in 100,000 chances of catastrophic failure; had 2 in 135). Now that isn’t to say the shuttle wasn’t worth a try, but the evidence has shown (for a very long time) there are better alternatives.
Because unmanned (robotic) space is cheaper, faster, and better in every regard, what exactly does a manned space program do that unmanned can’t? It would seem there are two things: manned space can serve as a source of pride and it (perhaps) establishes aspirational goals for the future. The shuttle can say ‘mission accomplished’ on the first but sadly, did nothing to further the second.
This hypothesis means manned space programs should work to try and maximize its possible contribution towards these two goals. Given the direction of the current U.S. manned space program (to continue to support the ISS), it seems the two goals are unlikely to be met; after all, they’re no different than they have been for some time and now the U.S. doesn’t even have a self-provided ride to the space station. The only way the goals might be met is if U.S. commercial space is able to mature into something that can fulfill these goals and for that, government money will be required in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and offered/assured business. How does one make money in space? By selling space hardware and services to the government.
So what should be the specific goal for the U.S. manned space program? It should be to get back to the moon (generating pride, interest, and pushing the existing manned space performance envelope) for the purpose of learning how to use the moon’s resources to make life better here on earth. The lame round-and-round money pit we are “getting” from the space station is incapable of meeting the goals that only manned space can satisfy.