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NASA seems to share more in common with Disney these days than just proximity. The shuttle program has been described as a 30 year detour for the American space program. The shuttle was designed by a committee to satisfy multiple contradicting goals, none of which remained by the time the vehicle was completed. It cost more than the disposable vehicles it replaced, could not go high enough to do anything interesting, possessed capabilities that proved unnecessary, and contained so many design compromises that many engineers thought it to be a widowmaker before Challenger was even lost. Right now NASA doesn't make headlines for shuttles blowing up, they make headlines for shuttles NOT blowing up. After the cancellation of several shuttle successors, NASA has decided to go back to capsules with Project Constellation. There are vague talks of moonbases and a showboat Mars mission that will undoubtedly be canceled after squandering millions, possibly billions of dollars. NASA at this point is divided between the manned space flight camp (a political creature which suffers for it) and the "everything else" camp which includes the wildly successful pure science missions. Nobody can agree on the agency's goals and, even they they could, political appointees will change with every administration and sabotage whatever progress has been made.
NASA at this point seems to be like an 800lb man, trapped in his own house, suffocating under his own weight, too far gone to do anything to change his condition, just waiting to die. I think NASA is a lost cause.
Who represents the future in space? The private concerns like Virgin Galactic? Perhaps SpaceX? Government-sponsored programs such as China and India's? And even at that, these efforts represent small thinking. Tourists in space? More communication satellites? Whatever happened to proper space colonies like O'Neill Habitats? What about solar power satellites? How about space mining and manufacturing? How about a cost-effective heavy lift vehicle like Sea Dragon? I suppose an Orion Drive vehicle might be too much to ask for, though I have heard that there might be ways to generate the nuclear-style explosions without fallout and environmental damage.
What I find the most frustrating here is that none of what I've mentioned is technologically infeasible, it is all within the realm of possibility. What is lacking is the political will to make it so. Of course, the same thing can be said about world hunger: we have the resources and technology to feed the world, what prevents that from happening is politics. Most wish-fulfillment sci-fi involves individual men and women of genius who are capable of developing and applying revolutionary technology while cleverly circumventing the stifling hand of government oversight and bureaucracy. That isn't how it works in the real world.
My question boils down to this: I'm not asking what is theoretically possible, I'm asking what we can realistically expect. What can we expect our future in space to be?"