Isn’t it great that we now have the technology to stick an astronaut to the end of a robot arm and have him peel troublesome grout from a space shuttle’s belly in orbit? Next stop, the moon! Oh wait, first we have to see if the flimsy cloth we use for insulation might not fly off in the wind. Then, next stop, the Mars!
The funny part is, when we finally do get on our way to “The Moon, Mars, and Beyond,” it looks like our spacecraft will be old-fashioned capsule-on-rocket stacks in the Golden Age Mercury/Gemini/Apollo tradition, with parts cannibalized from the existing Space Shuttle System. So after all these years of piggybacking the orbiter on a foam-covered fuel tank with solid rocket boosters, we go back to multi-stage rockets, capsules, and parachutes — and find that those old ways worked better and cheaper after all.
Not to say that the shuttle is a complete failure. It was a great idea on paper, and one that would have worked if we only had the money and hardware to be able to produce powerful rockets which could deliver huge payloads without having to worry about compromises of mass and funding. That’s something the Russians seem to have done well early on with their Vostoks. A lot of these design problems with foam and orbiters-astride-fuel-tanks and such would be less of an issue if we only had ten times the thrust of a Vostok 8K72K or Saturn V, plus unlimited, no-holds-barred freedom and funding to design all sorts of outlandish launch vehicles made of impervious armored materials capable of flying around space while repelling just about any kind of impact or radiation. Like a starship! Yeah! Get on it, NASA!