>So, what exactly is the point of manned space stations?
For one thing, testing various methods for keeping humans alive, healthy, and sane in space.
We need to expand beyond Earth. To do that, we'll need space stations as jump-off points, and we'll need to know how to survive extended periods in space (months and years). To do that, we need somewhere to test survival, like the ISS.
> Or would the money, time and effort be better invested in some other types of space activity - automated experimental stations, or - let's dream - building a "real" base in space?
The ISS cost $150 billion over 20 years, or about $7.5 billion a year to construct and maintain. The US currently spends about $3 billion a year to keep it going - or about $8 per person. It's not a lot of money. Think about that - watching a movie about space costs more than actually maintaining a real life space station.
We have to start somewhere. All the work put into building and maintaining ISS was necessary experience before would could build a "real" base. We can design all we want but there are a lot of lessons to learn when you try to put theory into practice.
Yes, for each individual experiment, automated experiments are cheaper and easier. They're still done: http://www.space.com/27003-rus...
We don't have to do ISS *or* automated experiments - we do both.
Space is the future and it takes big investments right now. They do pay off now, and they'll pay off even more in the future.