As soon as NASA vertically recovers and reuses one of it's boosters, I'll agree with you. I will partially agree with your statement that the NASA space program has been a joke since '72, but only in so far as the manned deep space program is concerned.
I can understand GH's points, but it seems kind of a shortsighted view. Gotta crawl before you can walk, and it's FRIGGIN HUGE! that INDEPENDENT COMPANIES are able to do this AT ALL, and NASA and the gubmint, Air Force, and every other spacefaring nation on Earth CANNOT.
The SpaceX haters are quick to point out that the basis of everything Elon's done was bought from NASA-- yes, CANCELLED projects that short-sighted politicians and probably NASA beancounters as well never let them finish, were unwilling to fund, or didn't see the value of, and cancelled and/or mothballed before it ever bore fruit. The Merlin engines flying on Falcon 9 today have their basic design roots in the FASTRAC engine that NASA was developing and canceled, similar to how NASA canceled their development work on inflatable habs, work that they pioneered, and eventually sold to Bigelow, who continued to fund development and test articles launched on Russian rockets, and who now is SELLING "his" inflatable space hab technology to NASA (an inflatable Bigelow test module was recently attached to the ISS and inflated). Then there's the "Dream Chaser" being designed and built based on NASA work done (but never finished-- canceled first) on the HL-20 Crew Escape Vehicle for the ISS, and carried over into the Orbital Space Plane project before the Columbia disaster to design a shuttle replacement.
Here's the point-- NASA PIONEERED many of these technologies, BUT DID NOTHING WITH IT. Granted, in many cases it was shortsighted politicians that refused to fund it and it ended up canceled for lack of funding, but in many cases there was equal failure among NASA managers and leadership to FIGHT for these sorts of development programs to be funded by the shortsighted tard politicians, so that they could continue to develop and expand on the technology, and have the same kind of capabilities that companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are demonstrating TODAY. Instead, NASA 'leadership' allows infighting between centers and programs and managers to undermine cutting-edge work, reallocates funding into "dead end" programs or uses it to fund bloated, inefficient, mismanaged, or technically troubled programs with less value but more political appeal or support, and which usually benefits fatcat contractors lobbying for billions to be spent on their "cost-plus" contracts which deliver essentially "nothing new" to NASA (ie nothing "revolutionary"). SO, NASA is in retrograde motion right now... spending $46 billion bucks and a decade to build SLS from "old shuttle parts", which was SUPPOSED to save money (by reusing the already designed ET and its tooling for the core stage, with suitable modifications for the new loads of being a core stage,and by reusing the shuttle RS-25 SSME's, and by reusing the existing SRB's, which of course turned out NONE of this was true and they had to be all essentially REDESIGNED FROM SCRATCH to work properly in the new configuration). To add insult to injury, all these "existing components", originally designed for reusability, will be used ONCE in an "expendable mode" and dumped onto the floor of the ocean in little bitty pieces, meaning more will have to be manufactured at great cost. Once the existing SRB casings are flown once and destroyed, an ALL NEW billion-dollar development disposable "advanced" SRB will have to be designed, built, and tested. Top that with the $9 billion dollars and 6 years NASA WASTED on Ares I development before it was cancelled in 2010, along with the development of Orion which has been going on for 12 years already (with only one test flight (not counting escape system tests using boilerplates) to its credit and no other flight scheduled for years more, and it's hard to take NASA seriously anymore, as far as manned spaceflight goes. Ultimately the politicians are to blame as well, because they allow this state of affairs to continue and make no effort to make it better... even properly funding our commercial crew efforts so we can quit sending our astronauts to Russia for a year with a $72 million dollar check of the taxpayer's hard earned money in their pocket to buy a ticket on Soyuz to get to the ISS, would be a tremendous improvement... but they won't.
NASA's unmanned programs, with the exception of the James Webb Space Telescope, is a runaway success, and with only a PITTANCE compared to the money poured down the rathole of the "manned space program" as NASA has been doing it since 1972... "peeing in jars and looking at stars"-- in 40 years you'd think we'd be well experienced with that... but evidently not. Now we rely on RUSSIA to even HAVE a manned presence in space AT ALL... EXTREMELY sad and pathetic!
Truth is, if we're going to get our own astronauts into space from the US on US built rockets, it's gonna be SpaceX, Blue Origin, or ULA that will do it. ULA is hampered by being an "old space big fat cat NASA cost-plus gubmint contractor" and basically is working to fly a cheap clone of Orion on an Atlas V. For less than HALF (about a THIRD) of what NASA WASTED on Ares I between 2004 and 2010, SpaceX developed not only one new rocket (Falcon 1), but TWO (Falcon 9), developed an all-new engine TWICE (the ablatively-cooled original Merlin, which they redesigned as the regeneratively cooled Merlin on Falcon 1, and then modified and improved through a couple more iterations to arrive at the current Merlin "D" (IIRC), AND developed a FULLY REUSABLE unmanned supply spacecraft, Dragon, which is the basis of their commercial crew vehicle (manned Dragon). FOR 1/3 of what NASA spent on the cancelled ARES I ALONE! NOT including Orion development from 2004 to the present day, which was based on work done even before the Columbia disaster for OSP and other programs, including reusing the old shape and aero-test data in the design of Orion from the Apollo! Dragon is a COMPLETELY NEW shape (different wall angles and height/proportions, which required all new aero-testing data to design). Add to the fact that SpaceX now has a DEMONSTRATED capability to propulsively land its first stages both back at the launch site AND on a robotic barge AT SEA, (and soon to demonstrate that they CAN fly again) and Blue Origin's demonstration that they too have mastered at least SOME of this technology (with a demonstration they can land and relaunch again) and suddenly NASA looks like it's standing still! The best NASA has been able to do is dunk 2 inch thick 146 inch diameter segmented steel pipes into the ocean under parachute, send divers to plug their aft ends and pump seawater out, and drag them back to shore lashed to the side of boats, to be disassembled and refurbished and shipped 3/4 of the way across the US on railcars to be refilled with solid propellant, shipped back and stored, transferred and stacked, and shot off again to drop in the ocean under parachute... and call that "reusability". It WAS high technology-- in 1981! The world has moved on since then! Time and again, NASA fumbled the ball and never could make the case to get funding for TRULY reusable boosters-- flyback boosters using liquid propellant. Of course, Russia has had designs for "fully reusable" boosters since the mid-late 80's-- their Energia/Buran rocket and shuttle were to use four modified "Zenit" boosters designed to parachute back to Earth and land on landing legs HORIZONTALLY for transport back to the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In practice they never actually flew them-- both flights of the Energia rocket before it was cancelled (on the single robotic Buran Shuttle flight and the Polyus battle station Soviet SDI launch) used disposable Zenits. The Russians have trotted out pictures and diagrams of their proposed "Baikal" reusable flyback boosters, equipped with cruise missile jet engines in their nosecones and swing wings to flip out after they've been jettisoned from their rocket stack at altitude, flying back using residual kerosene in the rocket propellant tanks, but they've never actually flown them. Europe's ESA, Japan, China, India-- NONE have designed, built, and flown a reusable first stage booster either, or done anything beyond wild proposals. Even now ESA is designing, not a new reusable liquid propellant automatically landing first stage space launch vehicle, but they're copying the tired old disposable Solid Rocket Booster designs trying to achieve cheapness through economy of scale. Maybe it'll work, likely it won't. Even our own Air Force has never followed through on their abortive attempts as designing a flyback or reusable booster, even when it was their stated goal!
Anyway, SpaceX and Blue Origin can be deservedly proud of what they've accomplished-- they've done something NO GUBMINT SPACE PROGRAM ON EARTH HAS... flyback to landing reusability. That's huge. Yes, it remains to be seen how successful it will be, economically and operationally, and the jury is still out, yet we DO KNOW what DOESN'T work-- the idea of "cheap solid propellant" vehicles being a revolution in space operations costs, even if they're designed to be "reusable" (it's been proven economically that had the shuttle boosters been designed with expendable spiral-filament wound composite casings and flown once and allowed to crash and sink, like the Titan III and IV boosters were, it would have been cheaper than actually recovering, refurbishing, and refueling the SRB steel casings as was done in the shuttle program). Plenty of US, Russian, and other country designs for flyback or reusable boosters has been trotted out over the years, but NONE have ever amounted to ANYTHING other than "PRP" (Pretty Rocket Porn, ie "powerpoint engineering")... STRICTLY proposals and nothing more.
America has allowed its space sector to languish while funding the missile and space programs of our former enemies (and sometime fair weather friends). It's good to see that the AF is FINALLY paying Blue Origin to develop their BE-4 for use on Atlas V, to replace the Russian RD-180's. This is a good start. Sad truth is, we never should have gotten in this position in the first place! We should have continued developing advanced rocket engines after the SSME development in the 70's (instead of basically taking a decade off before beginning serious engine development again in the late 80's/early 90's after the Challenger disaster). We should have SERIOUSLY funded the effort, as well, rather than the half-assed efforts that usually ended in cancellation before anything actually made it past the test stand, if it even got that far. Even now the Russians have capabilities we DON'T have-- automated rendezvous and docking, for instance-- a functioning, OPERATIONAL propellant transfer system (beyond the experimental systems the US has tinkered with now and again) like that used on the Progress tankers and resupply spacecraft, which make ISS possible in the post-shuttle era. Advanced hydrocarbon oxygen-rich high-pressure engine designs like RD-180...
Hey, if it's gonna take moving from the "gubmint airmail" program to "commercial airlines" to open up flight to humankind, it's probably gonna take moving from "gubmint manned spaceflight" to "commercial spaceflight" to really drive innovation and open up space to mankind. One thing we know for sure-- it's been demonstrated that in 59 years of space flight, gubmint operations, regardless of where on Earth they might be, haven't opened up manned spaceflight beyond their own hand-selected inner circles...
Later! OL J R
My MUNIFICENCE is BOUNDLESS, Mr. Bond...