And despite all its technological achievements, the shuttle remained an expensive, touchy thing with little margin for error. Sadly, the orbiter never flew as originally sold-it was neither safe nor inexpensive to fly.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the shuttle's retirement-it leaves America in the lurch.
In retrospect, Congress and the White House were ill-advised, in 1972, when the first shuttle program was sold to Congress. A dynamic manned space program, as first proposed in 1971, was eventually trimmed to satisfy GAO beancounters and anti-space politicians like U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale by 1972-always a sure sign of trouble ahead. Compromise plans rarely result in what's best for the nation.
With today's 20-20 hindsight, NASA should have kept Apollo and its big Saturn launchers. Apollo-Saturn would have provided continued access to Earth orbit plus return trips to the Moon and flights beyond cislunar space. Instead, we squandered NASA's vast Apollo expertise and the industrial infrastructure it created; the space agency was forced, thanks to Congress and several presidents-Nixon, Ford, and Carter-to perform expensive navel-gazing close to the cradle of Momma Earth.
Then along came President George W. Bush with a bold space plan in 2004-dubbed Project Constellation by NASA. It was a modular, Apollo-like concept that would have included the Moon and Mars in future mission planning. Constellation was on its way until the Obama administration pulled the plug. Why? One can only surmise that "all things Bush" were targeted for eradication by the Obama administration.
Regrets are never healthy to entertain for too long in life, and in the case of American manned spaceflight, there are many. So, it's not for America's inability to accomplish great things in space that I regret. This writer is a firm believer that the nation can still do amazing things in space-and will. What the nation lacks in the field of space exploration now are national leaders with courage and vision-among other things.