Despite budget cuts and the long-running diminishment of the glamour around space exploration, 2011 saw Russia, the US, Europe and even the UK were all plan, execute and in some cases spectacularly fail to execute missions to the stars. But the US budget cuts really made themselves felt: nowhere more poignantly than in the end …
"Find the budgets", my ass
Governments do not "find the budgets". They write random numbers on dotted lines depending on hemming, hawing, horse-trading, ego stroking, vote buying and rhetoric-of-the-day mayonnaised up with plain old-man stupidity. They then print the money as needed.
Now for the funny part:
"The US government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye."
Also, Vietnam attacked us, we do not bomb Cambodia, the Iraq war was a Great Success with few civilian casualities and Iran tries to get nukes.
And even if they are not LYING OUTRIGHT, this is just a SHEEPLE-ORIENTED non-denial denial covering up the FACT that they know that TRANSHUMAN INTELLIGENCES FROM ANOTHER DIMENSION are injecting RANDOM SEMANTIC CONTENT into this reality, kinda like those scientists beaming modulated gamma rays into the Solarian ocean, you know what I mean?
MESSENGER left out?
Did I read too fast, or MESSENGER probe was left out from this "year in space"? Obit insertion and formal science mission began this year.
"End of the era of the spaceplane"
The shuttle isn't a space plane.
It's a glider return vehicle.
The era of the space plane has yet to begin and when it does space access will really change.
This is what happens...
When the author gathers info through binoculars:
It is good that the shuttle has stopped sapping the NASA budget. The COTS stuff will hold the fort for LEO/ISS stuff for 20 years (or more)
The next major technology for manned flight is venturing away from LEO. COTS hasn't yet showed any commercially viable plan for this work. Recycled Orion is supposed to enable that development.
The NASA interplanetary program is 10-20 years ahead of anything else. Use of ion rockets and other space technology is/has been remarkable
Perhaps the Euro-press should be pressing the EU t do more direct research
Shuttle meant more capabilities than just moving stuff around
Too many people really didn't understand what was lost with the Shuttle retirement. It wasn't only its payload capacity, which was far larger than many "COTS" devices available now, some payloads due to their size and weight can't be carried on most rockets available, and the Shuttle also allowed for more "delicate" payloads due to its "softer" take off.
The Shuttle allowed for a "space operation"s capability - see the Hubble maintenance - that now it is lost because no other platform can carry seven astronauts and a full assortment of reusable facilities (from the robotic arm to the needed tools). It could also bring back to Earth large payloads, and that capability is now fully lost.
NASA can put the Webb Telescope in a Lagrangian point, and let's hope everything goes well or it will be just a brick flying there, and it will anyway last far less than Hubble, as most of other satellites from now on.
If you look at the Shuttle just as commercial satellite launcher, well, it's too expensive and complex. It you look at it as a versatile space operation platform, it was very valuable. NASA should have started to design a new, less expensive platform (the thermal protection was designed in the seventies - there is really no way to design now a simpler one??) instead of trying to design an Apollo with LCD screen.
Meanwhile, moving from away LEO with actual engine technology is wishful thinking. The Saturn V was already capable of it. But it was too expensive also. Probably to move away from LEO you need to start from LEO. But first a full "space operations" capability form LEO is need. And it won't be achieved with Sojuz and Orion.
MPCV isn't about LEO at all...
Another mention of MPCV for LEO....
NASA has repeatedly been clear, but people keep acting like they don't believe it. MPCV is about HEO or Lagrangian basing. LEO is nice for some stuff, but there is just too much hazardous junk for serious staging. One Chinese test in 2007 left 50% more junk in LEO then the ENTIRE 40 years of work before that. Think of MPCV as going to either Geosynchronous orbit (where it would 'hang' in the sky, like commercial communications satellites) or L1 Lagrange (where it would circle the Earth at the same rate as the moon, appearing to hang between the Earth and Moon). MUCH more shielding is needed for these targets (the Van Allen Belts 'protect' LEO objects, but are thought to cause some problems for interplanetary trajectories) with MUCH longer lifecycles to give an economical return.
Apollo, like the Shuttle and Concorde, was a remarkable proof-of-concept. It just wasn't economically viable. Orbital Sciences (with their aircraft-launched Taurus) and SpaceX (with their upscaled Energia-inspired traditional rocket) have improved on their forerunners. The proof will be in the eating within five years.
Heavy Lift with Shuttle was always compromised with the incredibly heavy reusable. Shuttle launches cost ~$1,400,000,000 (most were close to $2Bn), RUS Protons launch for $40,000,000. The shuttle actually used a 100,000 kg orbiter to lift 24,000 kg of payload to LEO, that was the crux of its economic problem. Protons only carried 85% of the payload, but cost 3% as much to run. Shuttle was much more flexible, but the numbers just weren't there.
New Heavy Lift (20,000 kg to LEO) from 3 US companies (includes Spacex), Russia, China and the EU. Some are already proven, others are coming on line.
The NASA problem was keeping on selling the Shuttle as a commercial launcher, even when it was clear it was not, stopping development of cheaper launcher for commercial satellites.
It's useless to compare it to Proton, Taurus or SpaceX. It's like comparing a cargo ship to a aircraft carrier. If you have to ship eighty airplanes across an ocean you may just use a cargo. If you need full aircraft operations across it you need a nuclear carrier, even if it is much more expensive to operate.
Using a reausable, heavy, man-rated and expensive launcher to deliver commercial comm satellites was a nonsense that shows how NASA management was (and is) really incompetent. The Shuttle should have been uses as a prototype and scientific vessel to build space operations capability, as it did in its high-end missions.
Even if Orion can reach HEO or Lagrangian points, what could it do there besides saying "look mama, I'm here!" and then get back? Even if SLS is built, it will mean its very expensive payloads have no way to be returned to Earth and resused, and thereby will be abandoned in space or destroyed on return - how will it be "cheaper" than the reusable Shuttle facilities for high-end missions?
The whole MPCV has only one reason to exist, to keep on funding an aerospace industry full of engineers who spend too much time on Facebook and have only a tiny fraction of the skills their fathers and grandfathers had.
I *could* buy a five seater pickup truck, but instead I drive a Peugeot 107, the pickup would allow me to get a large amount of wood in it, for a wood burner or to build a shed.
I'm not going to buy a pickup truck, because if I do I wouldn't be able to afford the holiday I want or 46" TV that I decided to treat myself to, and because I couldn't afford a small car as well that means I'd have to use the pickup as my day to day car, very uneconomical, harder to park in small spaces, don't get me wrong it would be great when we go paintballing, all the gear in the back, the markers, gas cylnders, paint, clothes and five of us in the front, yup once a month it would be great.
The space shuttle, for all of it's advantages for some things (probably the most flexible LEO vehicle) was overkill (most of the time) over $1bn a launch when progress could have achieved a similar thing (most of the time) for $40m.
Don't get me wrong, there may well be some things that only the space shuttle could have done, but keep in mind: Ariane V, Atlas V and Delta IV all could carry the same weight (and Atlas/Ariane have a greater width capacity), Poisk ,Zarya and Zvezda got into space and hooked up to the ISS without the space shuttle, yes the sapce shuttle *could* bring back a payload (although it had only brought back small payloads) but at what cost? and that cost was there when it came back empty as well, the ISS also has a robotic arm.
You're not a million miles away from the truth, but you need to take the rose tinted glasses off, in reality the space shuttle was a fantastic achievement, over engineered for the job it ended up doing and sucked up so much cash that cheaper, more appropriate solutions couldn't be developed - look at what USSR/Russia achieved with a fraction of the budget, imagine what the USA could have achieved if they made slightly different choices.
The space shuttle (with it's cost and LEO limits) killed the moon program, there could have been a moon base alpha or a "next stop mars" space station by now if the space shuttle hadn't spunked all the cash away - look how the US caught up Russia and overtook in the moon race, imagine this sort of enthusiasm for a base or Mars mission.
It's all downhill from here... for the West
Yeah, 2011 was a good year for Western Spaceflight.
So what about 2012?
The biggest issue has to be NASA's funding mess. 2012 will see the US Governments OMB (Office of Management Budgets) start in on NASA's budget with an axe, just to keep it within its budget mandates.
And what's mandated? SLS, of course. A monstrously expensive monster-rocket that funnels lots of money to that paragon of corporate efficiency, ULA (Lockheed Martin & Boeing) which will happily offer a service at inflated prices using old technology.
So we'll probably say goodbye to the next Mars orbiter, the James Webb telescope is still likely to be cut and a host of other small programs are likely to go. And all to fund something that will likely be cancelled before its first flight in 2017 (that's the scheduled flight but it'll probably slip to the right, into 2018) because of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, 53 metric tonnes of lift offered at a fraction of the price of SLS.
So it's five years of budget chaos within NASA, as ULA gets the lions-share of its funding, slashing other programs to do it and then more chaos as the weight of public opinion pushes NASA towards the more cost-efficient Falcon family of rockets causing yet another period of budget chaos.
But on a positive note, we'll see private sector acheivements starting to come (getting the first one out of the pickle jar, and all that...) with the arrival at ISS of a private-sector supply capsule (Dragon) with the promise of more private sector acheivements (doesn't Bigelow Aerospace have a slot for an inflatable module booked on a Falcon 9 in 2012/2013?) to come.
Falcon Heavy vs SLS?
Neither one has flown yet, so this is still extrapolation based upon design...
Falcon Heavy is supposed to be 53,000 kg to LEO (they don't have any HEO or Lagrange customers, yet). SLS is about 70,000 to 130,000 kg to LEO (and they don't intend to use it for LEO, but for HEO/Lagrange L1). Falcon Heavy is targeting payload-weights that are in-between the weights being planned by Japan, China, Russia, EU and other USA companies (5,000/10,000/20,000 kg to LEO in steps). That COULD be really great, or it could be a problem (if no payloads are planned for those weights).
I get it that SpaceX is a private company (so are Boeing & Martin) and that the iconoclasts like the notion of the shaking-the-fish-bowl (I am a USA taxpayer, too!). I just don't want to see expectations being set unrealistically for this nascent 'player'. I LIKE the idea of economic competition, where economically viable objectives have been set.
@Beachrider - Falcon Heavy vs SLS
True, neither has flown yet. The first FH flight (53 tonne payload capacity) is scheduled for the first (possibly slipping to 2nd) quarter of 2013. The first SLS flight (70 tonne weight capacity - it WON'T be hauling a cargo, just an empty MPCV + Delta IV upper stage as a service module to go around the moon and back) is intended to fly in December 2017, PROBABLY slipping to the first/second quarter of 2018.
FH will cost its customers up to 125 million dollars a pop and possibly as little as 80 million. The FH may well get the new Merlin 2 engines by the time SLS flies, allowing its payload capacity to increase to 65-70 tonnes (assuming a 20-25% increase in payload - not unreasonable). The first SLS is set to cost 16 BILLION dollars (10B for the SLS and another 6B for the MPCV) plus whatever that Delta IV upper stage costs.
If you assume 100Million for the launch with the full 53,000 kilos used (and paid for) then you get a cost/kg figure of roughly 1,900 dollars/kg.
With one rocket with a more or less matching payload, coming in much, much cheaper than the other & entering service much, much sooner, the other will have to make a compelling arguement for its continued existence or be dropped like a hot rock.
I don't see SLS making that arguement and so it'll be dropped by 2015 at the latest. Good riddance, I say but of course (and as I said earlier) it'll wreck NASA's programs budget TWICE! Once as stuff gets cut to make room and then again as its cancelled and the funds need to be reallocated.
Hello, five years of budget chaos...
Apples to apples, please...
SLS is not yet a committed system. NASA is only committed to the $6.9Bn research in 2011, 2012 and 2013. This money is for building the (NEW) technology of the Engines and tanks. No rocket-systems or tests are guaranteed, yet. A POC rocket could launch in 2016, if the progress and cost are acceptable.
The pictures of SLS look like the pictures of the Orion system, but Orion was mainly that (pictures). SLS is a lot of new/changed technology. It does leverage SRBs and Cryogenic Water-Rockets. The water-rockets are MUCH bigger and run for longer, they are not reused. The SRB lift is MUCH LARGER. The use of the Central Tank is COMPLETELY different.
The MPCV and J-2x research are separate items and could be adapted to ANY Heavy-lift system. You have unfairly added them to ONLY the SLS choice.
The SLS is designed to restart in deepspace. The RP-1 rockets of Falcon Heavy (and Russia and China) do NOT restart in deepspace. FH needs a second stage quickly after leaving the atmosphere. That is where J-2x could come into play. Whether this is important or not depends on your exact non-LEO mission-type.
Cost. You, me and congress are all concerned about cost.That is why it is being procured in stages. SLS has no final cost numbers available. Lots of people are publishing their estimates, but NASA only says that SLS must be cheaper than other things.
Look, get ESA to compete with this stuff if it really matters to you. I think that NASA would run better with tighter competition. The Russians have committed a substantial percent of their GDP to space research. The Chinese and Japanese could surpass the ESA in the next decade, unless the ESA wakes up. Ten years from now, they all might surpass NASA, who knows?
Those are some expensive apples...
This is one of the reasons why Government shouldn't be in the rocket-designing business once the Private Sector is established. Falcon Heavy's development costs aren't an issue for the customers who use it, including the government. SpaceX just charges a flat fee (80M to 125M dollars) and off it goes. Now SLS is going to cost 7 billion dollars before one rocket even flies and it's development costs get very obviously attached to the flight of each rocket, ratcheting up the unit cost.
MPCV could indeed go on almost anything, you're right about that but I have problems with that program too. CST-100, Dragon et al can do essentially the same job and are expected to cost much, much less.
You're right about the restart issue too but this is a difference in approach. Personally, I think it's inefficient to lift everything you need, all in one go, to deep space. It's better, IMHO, to assemble the bits in orbit and send them off rather than lift them all in one go on a VERY expensive rocket. Rather than 'one giant (and expensive) leap', a better approach would be many (cheaper) steps.
ESA is ridiculously underfunded, I agree and the Russians & Chinese are surging forward. That said, I think NASA's future competition will come from the American private sector. Efficient business models will leave the government model standing. And that's before Skylon (hopefully) enters the market and really shakes it up in 2021.
SpaceX is looking at upper stages - Raptor - and, sight unseen, I'll bet that they can come up with something to match the (probably Delta IV - kind of old) upper stage used on SLS and at least match the cost too.
Overall, I stand by my opinion of SLS/MPCV. Way too expensive for what it delivers, especially when Falcon Heavy/Dragon is entering service several years ahead of SLS.
MPCV vs Dragon...
MPCV is about <21 days in deepspace, Dragon is about 0 days in deepspace. This is like comparing a Main Battle Tank vs Self Propelled Gun. MBTs are hideously costly vs SPGs. Use an SPG where it is appropriate and an MBT where that is appropriate.
NASA somehow believes that its needs both. It should need waaaay more Dragons if vehicle assembly becomes a LEO job. Perhaps Dragon can be adapted to provide some kind of deepspace mission, but SpaceX is NOT yet committed to it.
NASA build very little, itself. NASA does provide a mechanism for developing technology that has no economic foundation (such as deepspace missions). If SpaceX can deliver such capability, the SLS commitments allow for NASA to drop SLS. The proof is in the eating...
Stuck inside MPCV for 20 days? Ow!
MPCV is a capsule, and like all capsules, it's designed to be a safe place for the Astronauts to sit during the exciting bits and to re-enter. For anything else it, like Dragon/CST-100 etc, would be a real drag to be stuck in for days on end and probably messy too.
All the (admittedly incoherent) ramblings on the Interwebs that mention MPCV going to deep space involve a habitat module for anything beyond Earth orbit. The one exception I've found seems to be the lunar orbit plans for SLS-1 (unmanned) & SLS-2 (manned) where it'll be 3ish days to the moon, 3 or 4 days in lunar orbit (Doing what? No-one's mentioned any kind of instrument package or the like) and then another 3ish days back to Earth.
I'd like to note that, while SLS, expensive as it will be, is essentially all-new, it won't, itself, be going beyond LEO. It will give enough push to get the MPCV and its service module/upper stage on the way to the moon. It's like the Falcon Heavy in that respect.
I'd also like to note that, despite the very large amounts of money being thrown around, there's no talk of an all-new upper stage to take people BEO. It's just the old Delta IV upper stage design (possibly the design/wiring/electrical systems will be rejigged).
If SpaceX does ever send a manned mission to Mars (one of Elon Musk's fantasies but hey, so was SpaceX itself) then they'll have a Dragon capsule or two but the crew will have, I'm sure, a dedicated habitat module.
I'm sorry to say that while NASA doesn't build anything itself, its funding has been hijacked by the Senators/Congresscritters to keep people employed even though they'll be working on something so expensive that, after Falcon Heavy flies 2 or 3 times (yes, I'm making an assumption that everything will go ok but that's not unreasonable, I think) the Senators/Congresscritters NOT on the Spaceflight committee (ie those who don't have people employed making/designing SLS) will object to the enormous cost disparity between the two rockets and vote down continued funding for SLS in 2014/2015.
Making deepspace commercially viable is still about 10-20 years away, IMHO, because of 4 things - initial cost (still too high), reliability (no-one's done deepspace commerical activities so this is going to be a low number), capability (we still can't put much into LEO, let alone deep space) and time (asteroid mining, for example, is a case of sending off a mission and getting the asteroid (or parts of it) back in 20 years or so).
Still, it'd be nice to spend a billion dollars on a mission to send a mining mission to (6178) 1986DA, a platinum-group metal-rich asteroid, break off a few hundred tonnes and send that bit back to Earth. At a current cost of 1,400 dollars per ounce, even a hundred tonnes of platinum would bring in 4.9 billion dollars.
Worth waiting 20 years for...
Well that got gritty in a hurry...
Several steps back in the last interchange...
1) RP-1 Rockets cannot steer an object into space dock on their own. They have to be shut off and allow restartable rockets to control a space dock. Zero doubt on this.
2) SLS can be cancelled in 2013 if costs steer another direction. NASA feels that the larger rockets are important to ANY deepspace exploration. You can disagree, but they still think that it is true.
3) NASA is a governmental agency, that is how the USA does it. For the ninth time, get the ESA going with your better ideas.
4) I agree that commercialization of deepspace is 20+ years away, that is why handing it over to privatization is premature. If there is no profit in an activity, they they won't do it. I doubt that conventional mineral mining will be a driving force in the next 50 years, for the reasons you cite.
5) The 20-day capability for MPCV has everything to do with shielding and provisioning. You cannot put a ping-pong table in any capsule.
6) Commercialization is ripe for LEO tasks. Let it build its success there. Although I agree that NASA's traditional suppliers need to get more efficient, NASA's ways of getting what it wants need to be revised (even without congressional micromanagement). NASA needs to find a Czar that changes NASA while resisting wild value judgements from the press, congress and others.
(down from soapbox)...
End of space planes?
Has there not been an unmanned mini-me shuttle in orbit for some time now? Shifting its orbit as it does its sneaky stuff, i.e. at least one task the shuttle was originally meant to be do?
I think if commercial flights had delivered a new craft to the ISS before Shuttle retirement, we could be more confident about NASA plans on beyond LEO.
As for ESA, thought there was a good involvement in ion drive and a good industry in at least getting satellites built and into space?
But ESA's budgets are tiny...
The major point about ESA budgeting is that, when scaled to the GDP of their sponsors, ESA is miniscule when compared to Russia (#1), USA (#2), China (#3). That is why the Euro-press should be petitioning the EU budget controllers vs NASA and the USA. Fix this problem in Europe, if it is really so important!
@CowardlyAndrew - mini-space planes - They're useless!
The US Air Force does indeed have an X-37B mini-spaceplane. They are indeed funding it and are going to build a larger version - X-37C - but someone needs to sit them down and tell them to stop wasting money like this.
A spaceplane that launches vertically from a rocket, and can only get to orbit that way, is just a capsule with an external cargo bay. Throw in wings and you've got cross-range capability. What's cross-range capability (CRC) good for? Not much unless you want to get down in a hurry. An ordinary capsule reaches orbit, does whatever and then re-enters. After one orbit though, its launch site (assuming that's where it wants to land) has moved about 15 degrees to the east. A capsule would just wait a couple more orbits until things lined up again and then re-enter.
A winged capsule can re-enter after one orbit and still make it to its landing field.
Will the X-37 be useful for putting satellites up? Nope, because other rockets can do it too. There's no benefit in using an X-37 for that. You want to hide the satellite? Don't blow off the fairing at the top of the launch rocket until you're ready.
So what's the only thing it can do that nothing else can? Simple. It can launch, match orbits with a foreign LEO object, stuff it into its cargo bay and return in one orbit. Except that this isn't the 60's anymore. People will see it happen and probably stream it over the internet.
So the US Airforce is paying to develop a capacity that no politician in their right mind would ever actually authorise. The US pinching a Russian/Chinese satellite with the whole world watching? Never happen.
So to summarise, the US Airforce is funding a program that's never, ever going to be used. The technologies involved which might actually be useful to civilian/commercial access to space will be classified and never seen again. Lose-lose for everyone.
The US Air Force was given lots of money. They have to think of some way to spend it. One good way is putting things in space and trying to do things either your enemies can't do, or at least be much better at what your enemies might be able to do if they break cover on their covert stuff when the shooting starts. There are probably much better ways to spend money than making a spaceplane that won't be used in peacetime and might even be unlikely to be used in war, but I still think there's utility in letting your enemies know that you can nobble their sats, or even recover/protect your own if they think they can fire up their own spaceplane.
Having a big stick to wave is always good...
Having an otherwise useless potential satellite-pincher does let you threaten the Russians/Chinese, true. You do get some gain from that but by developing a weapon (that's how they'll see it) that doesn't just destroy a satellite (it was there and now it's gone, that's the same as being destroyed) but allows its technology to be stolen (even worse), you make everyone nervous.
Nervous people are more likely to weaponise space which is another arms race that we'd do better to stay out of. To quote 'War Games', "Strange game, the only winning move is not to play"
Overall, you lose more than you gain, IMHO, particularly when you factor in the fact that the tech involved in the mini-spaceplane could be much more productively used in civilian/commerical reusable launch vehicles.
That is quite a hat...
Clearly X-37 is about downrange space retrieval. That is QUITE different from stealing another country's space assets from LEO. Retrieval of American assets from space allows for execution of Shuttle secret missions in the post-shuttle world.
You can get upset if we use it to steal technology from other countries, but we clearly just retired this capability without anyone getting their panties in a wad.
Perhaps I wasn't clear.
The Space Shuttle was an all-purpose vehicle - satellite delivery, repair facilities, mini-space station, orbital laboratory etc. It could ALSO be used to nick satellites (which it never did) but the X-37's sole purpose, the thing it can do that nothing else can do is to nab satellites and bring them down in a hurry. You don't need it to launch satellites, it's too small to be a repair facility or to be used as a space-lab so what else is it good for?
When you have a sole-purpose weapon (that's how it'll be seen) like that, it just encourages the militarization of space. And even worse, the tech it'll develop, which could be useful to civilian/commercial spaceplanes, will be classified and kept out of the public sector.
You are in-error, not misunderstood
The shuttle was used to retrieve items from space several times. For Europeans, the ESA payload was left in space for many months, then retrieved by the shuttle. There were several others. Given the materials research and process research used by similar USA payloads, it is realistic to expect them to continue after the Shuttle was retired.
So the shuttle was used to retrieve payloads. The other parts are your opinion, to which you are entitled. An inference like yours can be incorrect, especially when it disregards past history.
Please note your use of 'retrieve' and my use of 'nick' (steal, take without authority/permission). The shuttle DID retrieve some things but never nicked (stole) anything from orbit.
I may well be wrong but I'm not aware of any current or upcoming or likely science missions that leave stuff in orbit to be retrieved for later study/analysis that can't be brought back by a capsule - the Soyuz capsule (not to be mistaken for the rocket of the same name), the Dragon capsule, the upcoming CST-100 or even an Orion MPCV.
My main point, which I hope was clear, is that, IMHO, mini-spaceplanes (launch on a rocket, re-enter and fly to a landing field to land like an airplane) like the X-37 (whatever the variant) develop technology that is then classified and so denied to civilian/commercial usage. Their primary mission would be military in nature and risks starting an arms race in the one place where we don't want one - in orbit.
In addition, in this modern age where telescopes are widespread and the world would be watching, its primary mission of satellite theft would never be authorised by the political leadership - A mysterious theft is one thing, a theft that is aired live on the BBC World Service (for example) is quite another - which is why I think mini-spaceplanes give nothing and cost way too much, not just in financial terms.
Where are PARIS and LOHAN
How, in such a long review, could you have missed the Reg's own efforts at getting paper aeroplanes into space?
Parsing and re-parsing
Look, the idea of retrieving stuff from space is now SOLVED, good. The ESA payloads were very public, but not all were as publicized. If you simply believe that the USA has NO POSSIBLE uses for this technology, then we differ. Seems obtuse to me, since we did this a lot previously.
Since you advise that the Shuttle didn't steal anyone else's stuff and (my words) obtusely insist that we will do so now, you get to have that opinion. It looks like you made it up, though.
The use of mini-spaceplanes...
Does the X-37 mini-spaceplane have no research use whatsoever? No, it CAN be used for a range of research subjects. Materials science is the most obvious thing that leaps to mind and there are others.
So is the X-37 the best way to do the research? Absolutely not, there are more cost-effective ways to do the research. Have a capsule take it up, let it orbit for a while and then bring it down. It'll cost less than the X-37.
And I'm not saying that the US WILL now start pinching satellites, I'm saying that the US government will NEVER authorise the theft of satellites from LEO for the simple reason that the world would be watching such an action take place, live as it happens.
All of which leaves the X-37 in an uncomfortable spot. What IS it good for, if not pinching a satellite and research can be done elsewhere, cheaper? Not much, is my answer. It's the US Air Force who're funding this, so expect any research it carries out to be classified. The lack of data, and the fear of starting down a particular development path only to be told half-way that they're encroaching on classified research puts potential developers off researching, designing & building a civilian/commercial SSTO spaceplane.
So, money spent on knowledge that will be withheld from people in general, knowledge that could have been gained (in a more open manner and for the benefit of more people) at a lower cost. Money will also be spent on a vehicle that will NEVER get to do the one other thing it's good for.
It doesn't bother me so much, I'm English and REL is moving ahead with Skylon and expect to do nicely, thank you, but I'd much rather see TWO (or more) spaceplanes being developed and holding out the possibility that anyone can help to make our species a multi-planet species.