I was an ardent supporter of the space program for decades, until I got through college. See, in college I learned two of the most important lessons that you can learn in college, things that you go to college in the first place specifically to learn: I learned critical thinking and analytical thinking. And I was fortunate enough to go to a school which focuses on teaching useful things rather than arrant nonsense such as multiculturalism and political correctness, so I didn't learn to limit myself to being critical and analytical only about the role of white male racism in the oppression of the entire rest of the planet.
No, I apply these skills to all kinds of things, things which the soi disant "progressive movement" doesn't want me to think about. This leads me to be critical of things like anthropogenic climate change, socialism, the Demokkkrat Party, biofuels, etc.
In my second trimester of school I did a research paper about NASP--the National AeroSpace Plane--which was to be the follow-on to the Space Shuttle. And when I did the research for that paper, I learned what an utter bodge the Space Shuttle is.
("Bodge" := hack job, "kludge"--British term.)
Reading Feynman's second autobiography, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, sealed the deal. Feynman was on the Challenger Commission; he's the guy who dunked the SRB seal in ice water in front of the press and showed the world what happened to the Challenger. But his discussion of the matter in his book revealed how broken the entire program was; and that was when I began to realize that NASA was screwed up, perhaps beyond repair.
Reading Niven and Pournelle did not help that opinion. Those guys were there, in front-row seats, for much of the 1960s and 1970s, and saw--first hand--how NASA had changed, how it had gone from the best space exploration organization in the world to...well, to what we have now.
Part of it is funding. NASA's budget took a pounding in the latter days of the Apollo Program; I lay that squarely at the feet of Nixon and the "country club Republicans". The Carter years did not help at all, and the Reagan administration had a lot of other things on its mind. Still, SDI ("Star Wars") did a lot for NASA. But funding is only part of it.
NASA wasted a lot of money on the Shuttle. A lot. The Russians, who did not have a lot of money to throw away, built their own shuttle (Buran, which was virtually a copy of NASA's) but kept building the Energiya series of boosters that were first used to put Gagarin into orbit.
These days, if you want a heavy object placed in orbit, you have to go to the Russians; they're the only ones with heavy-lift capability. You don't hear much about it in our media, but the really big chunks of ISS go to orbit atop Russian rockets.
The Shuttle was an expensive mistake. Like a college student given a credit card, we foolishly went out and bought the fancy gadget, not thinking about what it was going to cost us. And so here we are, 30 years after the last Saturn V was made into a lawn ornament, with no heavy lift capability, a shuttle fleet which is due for retirement, and a replacement for the shuttle which is basically a Saturn V, and which won't go on-line for five years after the shuttles no longer fly.
Wouldn't it have been better just to keep flying Saturn V's? It would have cost less and let us do more if we had.
But we can't change the past, so let's look forward at what should be done.
Step one; budget.
NASA gets $18 billion dollars. The federal government spends $2 trillion dollars per year. $18 billion is 0.9% of the federal budget. We can spend more. During the Apollo years, every dollar spent on space exploration returned eight dollars to the national economy--in other words, spending on space exploration boosted our economy by eight dollars. Can you name one other federal program that can boast a statistic like that? An eight hundred percent ROI is phenominal, and I guaran-god-damn-tee you that the welfare department (which spends half the federal budget) can't match that.
The simple fact is that increasing the space exploration budget to $40 billion per year, even if we left everything else the same, wouldn't even make a ripple in the federal budget. It's too big. The taxpayers would never notice the difference, either, and in fact the annual budget increases amount to a lot more than that, anyway.
I don't want to get too deeply into how this could be done effectively without changing anything but the line-item in the budget, because this is a post about saving our space program, not congressional budgeting. But believe me when I tell you that there is plenty of wiggle room in a $2,100,000,000,000 budget.
Notice I said "space exploration", not "NASA". There's a reason for that.
Step two: Prizes
Jerry Pournelle's idea: establish prizes for people to accomplish things. Example: the feds pay $10 billion to the first group which establishes a base on the Moon and keeps a certain number of people there, alive, for one year, and returns them safely home.
Example two: NASA agrees to buy a certain number of flights to low Earth orbit at $XX per flight. The flights can carry anything: people, supplies, satellites, whatever. Neither NASA nor the federal government is allowed to specify where the rockets are built, who builds them, etc, etc--safety standards and performance specifications are allowed, of course, but not who, where, how much, etc. NASA must then buy a set number of flights from whoever can meet that target cost. The kicker, of course, is that the company can also sell flights to anyone at whatever price the market will bear.
Step three: NASA
Forget the Shuttle. Stop flights ASAP. Front-burner the Constellation and put all the Manned Flight money we save on not flying the shuttle into the new platform. That way you'll get a complete and operational system a lot fricking sooner.
While all this is going on, keep NASA in the business of sending unmanned missions all over the place; they're really good at this. (The privatized flight plan above would make this easier and cheaper, by the way.)
NASA needs to be weaned off the idea of developing brand-new technology for every last god-damned thing they try to do. NASA needs to learn the KISS principle, too--no more stupid bolts with self-diagnostic sensors, for Christ's sake--and learn how to take stuff off the shelf and adapt it to what you want or need to do.
Example: the Space Shuttle was originally designed such that the external tank could be boosted into orbit and used for...whatever. Like building a space station!
Number of Space Shuttle external tanks used in the construction of ISS: 0.00
Number of Space Shuttle external tanks dropped into the Atlantic: all of them.
(And while we're on the subject, stop incorporating design features you will never use. If you find that you need something later, you can put it in then. Yes you will have to update the documentation. Corporations budget for things like this; why is NASA unable to do so?)
When NASA designed the Saturn V, they didn't just design it to boost Apollo missions. They designed it to boost anything heavy. That's why they were able to use it to put up Skylab, which itself was built from a Saturn V third stage. If it had been done the way NASA has done things since the late 1970s, they would have had to build Skylab from scratch, with contractors all over the US contributing, and it would have cost five times as much and done about one-tenth as much good as it did.
The Space Shuttle has been compared to a pickup truck--multipurpose--but with one exception it has done nothing that could not have been done cheaper, faster, and more efficiently with equipment we had in the Apollo era. (One exception: fixing Hubble. And even then....) (I don't recall if the Shuttle ever brought a satellite back to Earth. It's supposed to be able to do that, but I don't remember if it ever did. If it did, that would make two things. But not worth the extra expense, IMHO.)
To borrow a phrase from Ned Flanders, the Space Shuttle is an answer to a question nobody asked. So, get rid of it.
Fixing NASA is the biggest, and hardest, part of the entire plan. NASA is seriously broken; it's a government bureaucracy first, an anthropogenic global warming shill second, a jobs program for space-related bureaucrats, engineers, and astronauts third...and being a space exploration agency is a distant fourth on its list of priorities.
But you can't fix NASA without dangling a lot of money in front of it, and you have to make getting that extra money hinge on results rather than the baseline of previous years' budgets. Cutting NASA's budget is what got us into this mess in the first place, and "Osama-Obama"'s plan to take NASA's money and give it to the
Sadly, the problem with utopia is that it doesn't exist. None of this will happen.
And since none of it will happen anyway....
The Real Plan
As long as I'm indulging in wishful thinking, I might as well think big. This plan requires that I have the ability to travel through time and bend the world to my will just by thinking about it. The beauty of this is that if I find myself with these powers any time in the future, I can fix our space program. The only problem is, of course, obtaining those powers. (I'm wondering if I can get government funding for the required research...?)
1) No Shuttle. Ever. Saturn V all the way baby.
2) No program cuts in the 1970s.
3) Apollo 25 establishes a permanent manned Moon base in 1978.
4) "Saturn VI" comes out in 1981, can boost more than the V.
5) SDI goes on-line on January 28, 1986.
6) First manned Mars mission in 1987, mostly built using lunar materials.
7) Mars Base, 1995.
8) Fuck you, William Proxmire.
9) 2001, Jupiter and beyond.
...and don't give me any guff about causing a paradox. If I can bend the world to my will just by thinking about it, I can make the paradox go away, too. Ha, ha.