Over at LiveScience blog, Dave Brody makes some interesting points. He wants to retire the Shuttle now. I find most of his points to be salient, but he is forgetting one very important thing: the U.S. has no other way of getting people into space at all right now. NASA knows this, which is why it wants the timeline for the Crew Exploration Vehicle to overlap the Shuttle's, or at least minimize any gaps between the two. Retiring the Shuttle right now would mean no manned access to space for a decade (not to mention the small problem of suddenly having thousands of employees with nothing to do).
NASA has really painted itself into a corner by not having any future plans for rockets, and waiting until too late to start thinking about it. The Shuttle's time has come and gone, and we do need a replacement now. Really, we need a replacement ten years ago.
NASA has started setting up workshops and such for people to start really working the vision, to try to look ahead and see what needs to be done now so we are prepared ten or twenty years from now. I fear this has come too late, and that corner is the last unpainted spot of floor. When I see press conferences, statements made by NASA admin, and attend meetings with other scientists, it is impossible not to see NASA as floundering when it comes to the future. And I'm not even talking about the way science has been so severely threatened at NASA, either.
It seems to me that the admin of NASA really is trying to figure out what to do about the future of manned spaceflight, and I appreciate that and give them kudos. But it is beyond doubt that this should all have been done a decade ago, so that we'd be sustaining space travel today, instead of trying to figure out how to sustain it. There were calls back then to do it, but somehow no plans were made for what to do in the post-Shuttle era.
When a replacement for the Shuttle is built, I hope that plans will be laid right away for what to do in ten years when that technology gets old, and when the needs for the future of space flight change. NASA may be hurting right now, but its future depends on its learning from this experience.