Michael Griffin, the current NASA administrator, got a lot of flak for saying that the shuttle program “was a mistake” in 2005. He said that the quote was taken out of context. I have a copy of a draft he wrote in March 2007 entitled “Human Space Exploration: The Next 50 Years”. I understand what he meant now and I agree with him. This is a small excerpt from it:
“…The average annual NASA budget in the 15 difficult years from 1974-88 was $10.5 billion; with 60% of it allocated to human spaceflight, there would have been sufficient funding to continue a stable program of lunar exploration as well as the development of Earth orbital infrastructure. I suggest that this would have been a better strategic alternative than the choices that were in fact made, almost 40 years ago.
After a time, as NASA budgets once again improved, we would have begun to concentrate our lunar activity around an outpost, and we would have used cargo missions to emplace the outpost equipment. A modified Apollo Lunar Module descent stage, with extra fuel and cargo replacing the ascent stage, could have been used for the purpose. The Saturn V could deliver two such vehicles with a single launch. So, over time, we could have built up an early lunar outpost, or smaller ones at different places of interest. By the present day, using what we had with minimal modifications – and I will remind us all that the Soyuz systems of that era are still flying – we would have a vast store of experience and a significant amount of lunar infrastructure. When the civil space budget eventually improved, as it did, we would have been well positioned to begin development of a Mars mission. And in the meantime, without doubt, we would have continued to modify, refine, and incrementally improve the old Apollo designs, to the point where they would have provided greatly enhanced effectiveness by the present day.
If we had done all this, we would be on Mars today, not writing about it as a subject for “the next 50 years.” We would have decades of experience operating long-duration space systems in Earth orbit, and similar decades of experience in exploring and learning to utilize the Moon.”
We should be farther along than we are now. Shortsightedness and compromise led us to this program, which I am proud to be a part of, but it is time to move on and do what should have been done a long time ago.