NASA sold us all a bill of goods in the 1970s. "Cheap access to space!" they said. The Space Shuttle was going to open the Final Frontier wide open and usher in a new age of space exploration!
30 years later--25 after the first flight of Colombia, and 3 after Colombia's final Icarus-like plunge from the heavens--space access is no cheaper than it was in 1976. Space is still the purview of the chosen few. And no one's walked on the moon since 1974.
The International Space Station? Don't make me laugh. Skylab did everything that space station has done, and for 1/10th the cost in real dollars, adjusted for inflation.
I used to be a hyper-enthusiastic supporter of the space program. I really did. I saw the first launch of Colombia. I stayed home from college and sat in front of the TV for six hours on January 28, 1986, after Challenger blew up. When I was 8 years old I got up at 5 AM and breathlessly watched the first picture from the surface of Mars appear on my TV screen, line by tedious line. When Colombia broke up on re-entry, again I sat in front of my TV for hours listening to the same facts over and over again, looking at the same unfocussed videotape of the thing burning up over and over again.
But NASA...NASA has not done us any favors.
In the 1970s they were so worried about getting funding for the Shuttle, they almost destroyed the blueprints for the Saturn V. They actually took the last (fully functional!) Saturn V and turned it into a lawn ornament. (I was watching Space Cowboys and I choked up when I saw it--what a waste!)
Given the mandate to get to the moon by 1969, they delivered. They went from "our rockets always blow up" to a successful moon landing in a relative handful of years.
If they tried to do that now, they'd kill a lot of smart people and get nowhere near the moon. And it has nothing to do with funding.
NASA is about employing NASA bureaucrats. It's that simple. "Space exploration" is only an excuse to spend taxpayer dollars and employ bureaucrats. NASA could be renamed the "National Alligator-shaped Surfboard Agency" and given dominion over certain types of water sports, and as long as their budget didn't change, the organization would go right on with its new mission without skipping a beat. (What would happen is that alligator-shaped surfboards would become a lot more expensive and heavily regulated. And, ironically, space travel would probably become a lot cheaper.)
NASA has ossified. They can no longer design, build, test, re-design, re-build, and fly rockets without an endless series of meetings, conferences, consultations, and discussions, all of which generate reams of documentation which must be read, signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, lost, found, and probably buried in soft peat for six months before being recycled into chlorine-free, politically-correct toilet paper. Forget going to the moon by the end of the decade; they're planning (planning! --and with a booster and spacecraft which haven't even been designed yet) to get back to the moon before the end of the next decade--2018--and they'll probably miss that deadline without so much as batting an eye.
I wish I could sum it all up simply, but I can't. The examples are infinite in number, and infinitely depressing. The X-33 program alone is rife with examples of NASA doing what it does best: taking a simple concept and turning it into a boondoggle.
An X program is pretty simple when you examine its basic concept. When you have an X program, you build a ship and you fly it. You look at what went right and what went wrong; you fix the problems, and you fly it again. You build a ship to test one thing and fly it, and you fix the problems, and you fly it more. You keep doing this. Eventually you have worked out how to do things that you didn't know how to do before.
AND THEN YOU START TO BUILD YOUR SPACESHIP WITH WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM THE X PROGRAM.
You do NOT start out saying, "Okay, X-33 is going to be the replacement for the Space Shuttle!"
In the late 1950s the Air Force was experimenting with high-altitude, high-speed planes. In 1947, even, Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 faster than sound for the first time in human history. They learned a lot about supersonic flight with the X-1. They built other planes, culminating with the X-15.
The X-15 is still the fastest airplane ever built. It had to be hauled into the stratosphere and launched from a B-52, but it was damn fast. It went so high that it had to have reaction jets on it--even at the speeds it flew, the air was too thin for its control surfaces when it reached its design ceiling. It was a suborbital airplane, and it would never be anything other than a suborbital airplane. But that was all right, because it was an X plane.
X-20--had it ever been flown (one non-flight-capable prototype was built)--would have been capable of reaching orbit. Instead of being launched from a B-52, it would have sat atop a Titan III missile. And the orbiter would have been completely reusable, just as its forebears had been. The office responsible for the X-20 program saw it being used as a "space fighter"--it could have flown around the planet and dropped nuclear bombs, in the role of a fractional orbit bomber. The Air Force saw it more as a design and development program, paving the way for real spacecraft.
Ironically, Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin changed that. The space race was on...and the X program was canceled, and its functions rolled into NASA.
The real fundamental irony of the history of space exploration is that the space race actually hurt the cause. It gave a short-term temporary success, but at the cost of the essential long-term development. The Air Force's X program provided NASA with all sorts of useful data on hypersonic flight--they could not have designed the Space Shuttle without the data developed by the X program!--but NASA missed the most important implications and instead focussed on protecting its bailiwick and its funding, the lifeblood of any government bureaucracy.
So...I don't look at the launch of Discovery--or its rescheduling--with any particular emotion. The Space Shuttle has demonstrated its worth as a platform; it is mediocre at best...and the agency responsible for it is no better.