If stuck in LEO is good enough for you, that's O.K.. Reasonable people differ. It isn't good enough for me.
- Ed kyle
If you want to go to the moon and have $150 billion in personal wealth to spend on the trip, you are free to do so. In reality, no one who actually has that much money would spend it on the trip, including the US taxpayers. That's why Nixon canceled Apollo in 1974. So if you really want to go, you first have to reduce the cost by a factor of at least 100.
Mike Griffin and the others who proposed Constellation never considered cost or practical value. They had motivations that were incredibly superficial for something of this scope, and not open to debate. They wanted to spend $150 billion in tax dollars essentially because they were bored. They remembered Apollo through some sort of nostalgic haze, and were too lazy to even study the history of NASA and learn why Apollo was canceled. It is said that those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. Constellation is a case in point.
The maximum market value of a flight to LEO is currently about $20 million, and only about one seat per year was ever sold at that price. At least 100 people are willing to pay Virgin $200K for a suborbital flight. So the market is highly sensitive to cost. Even flight to the moon has real value. But Constellation was always a dead end because its cost exceeded this value by orders of magnitude. It had no chance at all to ever succeed, and it has no chance now. The billions still to be poured into Constellation will be wasted, and should be stopped immediately.
But there's no reason spaceflight has to be expensive, even with rocket propulsion. LOX is 60 cents a gallon at LC-39; the energy that puts the Shuttle's wings and landing gear in orbit costs almost nothing. Most of the cost is in building a new vehicle for each trip. So only fully reusable launch vehicles have any chance of reducing the cost of human spaceflight to an affordable level. That was why we built the Shuttle.
Obviously it was more expensive than predicted, but it was the very first attempt, and has provided a wealth of knowledge that could make a next-generation shuttle less expensive, safer, and more practical. But the people who have that knowledge, mainly the USA technicians and engineers who actually put their hands on the Shuttle, are about to be fired and dispersed forever in order to pay for Constellation.
And in a bizarre twist, Constellation, bereft of any meaningful mission, is now being promoted as a meaningless jobs program, the "only" way to save jobs for a few of those who will be fired when Shuttle is shut down, even though there is no reason to shut down Shuttle, which is doing something useful, except to pay for Constellation, which would carry a tiny fraction of the people and cargo into orbit that the Shuttle can even if it worked.
How could NASA make such an obviously wrong decision on such a huge scale? Partly it's the lack of any forum within NASA for honest debate about strategic goals. This leaves the NASA administrator surrounded by people who will not question his decisions. To my knowledge there is no forum within NASA where these questions can be openly debated in any meaningful way.
Finally, I don't believe it is correct to lump all NASA in one pile and all industry in another. There are major contrasts between different programs. At one time there were serious problems in Shuttle, but today the Shuttle contractors demonstrate experience and judgment and the NASA management seems willing to listen to them. After all these years, the Shuttle program is finally working as we had always hoped it would. Now management is going to kill it because they are not willing to admit that they might have made a mistake.