What with the shuttle having made its last flight, there is a way you can get a sense that humaned (manned is sexist) space flight is a dead end proposition that has no long term place to go.
After the shuttle is retired the only way to get up to the going nowhere fast space station 100 billion dollar boondoggle that that big government spender Ronald Reagan saddled us with is via the Russkie excuse. A facility that falls so far short of the glorious spinning wheels that Braun and 2001 promised us. And there is something very funny about that. Here's why.
Now, the only reason that humans ever got into space in the first place is because of the Cold War. Specifically the perceived need to chuck H-bombs over the North Pole. During WW II the US had developed the ability to produce vast fleets of long range bombers, and by the late fifties we were deploying hundreds of long range jets, most importantly the giant B-52 that could fly all the way from the states to the CCCP, deliver a hundreds of nukes, and return. Because the Soviets could not produce fuel-efficient jet engines they could not churn out equally enormous and fast bombers with enough range to easily reach America. Besides, the Red military had long been primarily an artillery force, not a bomber force, so it was natural for them to put the effort into developing great big missiles powerful enough to lob big nukes at the capitalist Yanks, thus countering the bomber gap. Because they were doing it we had to too, so by the early sixties the both sides had built big boosters that happened to be large enough to put guys into space.
Because the Reds were at first ahead in the space race, JFK decided it was necessary to beat them at their own game despite there being no real practical military or economic need that justified the inherently enormous cost and great risk of putting people outside the atmosphere. So after considering some options (watering desert farms via desalinization was one), the Irish pol whom had no actual interest in space tech decided that to sending some Americans to the moon before the Soviets was the thing to do. This spectacular yet entirely discretionary project might not have been fulfilled if not for it being a memorial to the murdered president. Once the goal was reached most lost interest, and further attempts to reach deep space were hastily dropped by Tricky Dicky who -- to give him credit -- could count the fiscal beans.
Think about it. If there had not been some form of superpower nuclear competition half a century ago that drove the construction of super rockets, then the super rockets would not have been built. And such pricey devices would not have been created just for the purpose of orbital joy rides. Nor would the fabulously expensive Apollo Project been conducted. Ergo human space travel was a side effect of the Cold War. What few realized at the time was how true this was. I was a big fan of the Apollo program, to the point I admired Hitler's rocketeer Werhner Von Braun who had not yet been fully exposed as associated with the murderous slave labor facility that produced his war losing V-2s. In the 1980s the Cold Warrior Reagan figured that since the Bolsheviks had a space station named Peace, we Capitalists had to have an even better space station named Freedom. It would cost a mere few billion so what the heck. The illusion that manned space flight is an intrinsically productive activity would never have become widespread if not for the superpower contest.
Getting to better understanding how little progress space travel has made over half a century now that the Space Shuttle is grounded we return to the first great space rockets. The first ICBM developed by the Soviets was the huge R-7. It was so large because the Soviets thought their H-bombs would be really big boys that required really big boosters to propel them all they way to the USA. As it turned out the nukes got smaller than predicted, and the R-7s proved correspondingly useless as ICBMs -- they were too oversize to protect in silos and took way too long to fuel up. But, they were great for putting dogs and cosmonauts in orbit.
For the next few years the one way to get to the International Space Station is through Baikonur. And guess what rocket the Soviets are still using for lift the Soyuz? Go ahead, take a guess. Yep, you got it. The old R-7. Sure, today's R-7s are improved versions, with an enlarged second stage to help give the rocket more orbital oomph. But check out the 1st stage at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R-7_(rocket_family), it's basically the same ol booster.
So the main rocket for getting folks into space in 1961 was the R-7. And the main rocket for getting folks into space a half century later in 2011 is the R-7. A reason this is true is because rockets tend to be unreliable and blow up on occasion, and being around so long the R-7 line has most of the bugs worked out so they are the most reliable boosters available. To understand the dire implications this decades long stasis has for space travel let's go back to 1908.
As you recall, that year the Wrights first demonstrated to the world what was then the best plane in existence, their improved Fliers. Within just a couple of years they were badly out of date as aviation progressed by leaps and bounds. Orville himself lived to read about great swarms of bombers firebombing entire cities, and a couple dropping atomic devices. In 1958 the first near sonic jets, 707s able to carry 150 passengers across entire continents and oceans, were entering service. So was the F-104 Starfighter able to exceed Mach 2 and down its enemies with guided missiles.
Why did humanned aviation go from pretty much useless wood, fabric and wire crates to high performance, metallic machines able to generate large revenues from average citizens in just fifty years, while humanned space flight has gone from throwaway each flight R-7s to barely improved R-7s that still cost millions to put a given fellow in space over the same time span?
Partly it's a matter of fuel. The coach fare from Los Angeles to Tokyo is a reasonably affordable $1000 or even less. Part of the cost of the fuel, which amounts to about 70 gallons burned per passenger -- less than driving a car the same distance. Pushing a big plane through the thin air a few miles up, largely horizontally at nearly the speed of sound, does not require all that much work, so the cost is within bounds.
Accelerating a few persons a couple of hundred miles upward to orbital velocity of 18,000 miles per hour is a far more arduous task that demands tremendous quantities of fuel. Some 10,000 gallons per astronaut. No middle class person can afford the gas. That fact will never change; even if future spacecraft can take off from runways they will gobble fuel like pigs at the trough. It's the Laws of Physics.
Consider that no one has managed to produce a commercially viable supersonic airliner. Pushing a plane at just twice the speed of sound consumes so much fuel per passenger that only the elites can afford it, and there are not enough of them to justify developing such machines. If getting from Paris to New York is not economically viable, then just how is orbiting the planet much less visiting deep space going to work financially wise?
Then there is the cost of the plane versus the rocket. Developing a subsonic airliner or a spaceship costs billions. But because first are fairly cheap to operate and provide the extremely useful service of transporting the masses and cargo hither and yon for purposes of business and leisure at reasonable cost, lots of copies can be manufactured, spreading out the cost over hundreds or thousands of units that can then generate revenue that more than pays for the development of the airliner. Because there is not much demand for space flights that will always cost too much for all but a few wealthy elites willing to pay out of their pockets to put their lives on the line each machine costs enormous up front sums that can never be paid back in commercial revenues. The costs are so high that it does not make all the much difference if the machines are disposable or recoverable; they are way too expensive either way -- that's why the shuttles failed cost wise.
And let's not forget the cost of insuring the precious but super risky spaceships and the humans they contain.
In their enthusiasm space enthusiasts often lie to try to get the rest of us to go along with their dreams. Here's an example. You see, back in the days of Columbus and so forth sail driven cargo ships were the high-end travel technology of their day. Sort of like the space shuttle is these days. Since they found it worthwhile to sail on months long voyages of exploration, we should be building space ships to do the same thing. If we don't we're a bunch of small thinking wimps.