Friday night topic: What next for space exploration?

Now that the space shuttle program has launched its final mission, we're facing some interesting questions about the future of U.S. space exploration and the fate of NASA. A number of possibilities and plans are on the table. In the short term, as I understand it, the only means of support for the International Space Station will be Russian rockets. Eventually, private firms in the U.S. are gearing up to launch satellites into orbit to perform some of the roles fulfilled by Ye Olde Space Truck. Going forward, NASA has plans for a manned mission to Mars, provided it actually gets adequate funding, and the success of unmanned robotic exploratory missions could prompt additional projects along those lines.

Are we going in the right direction with any of these things? Was retiring the shuttle program a good idea? Can private-sector efforts fulfill the shuttle's role adequately? More importantly, how should NASA focus its efforts going forward: toward near-earth activities a la the shuttle and moon landing projects and the ISS, toward manned exploration, or more toward robotic exploration like the Mars rover project? Or should we scale it all back and take care of our needs here on Earth?

Personally, I want to support manned exploration. But space is huge, cold, and deadly, and manned exploration relies on fragile, quirky agents with short lifespans. Seems to me like we should send out lots more robots in the near term, at least. 

Which course of action do you think makes the most sense, and why? Discuss.

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