I read a couple of news stories today. First, Shuttle Flight Delay. Apparently, Katrina has shut down the company that makes the Shuttle's external fuel tanks. That's understandable, it's a major disaster. The bad part is that even without the hurricane, NASA did not expect the analysis and redesign of the foam insulation on the tanks to be complete earlier than fall of 2006.
That's just too long. The International Space Station really can't keep operating without regular resupply flights, let alone expand into something that can actually be useful. Obviously, the Space Shuttle is no longer reliable enough to do the job, and the U.S. Government is not going to invest the money to replace it any time soon. And if the Space Station closes down, that's pretty much the end of Man in Space - not just for the U.S., but for the whole world.
Then I read another story - New Company Aims to Colonize Mars. That's where the future of space exploration and colonization is, with private companies. Like Scaled Composites, the builders of SpaceShipOne, Four Frontiers sees a chance to make a buck in space. And as we all know, humans, especially Americans, will do pretty much anything to make a buck. As more and more private companies and individuals invest in the commercial possibilities of space, the research will happen, and progress will be made.
It's interesting, in a way. The first major steps towards space were taken in an international game of oneupsmanship, the Cold War. After that, the spirit of exploration and scientific curiousity were barely able to keep the program limping along for 30 years. Now the next "giant steps" are liable to come from human greed. It's not a nice commentary on us, but if that's what it takes to get us out there where we belong, I'm all for it.