"Compare that with the scuttle. Not only is it expensive to build,"
"The funding profile allowed by the OMB was *completely* unlike any real large scale project."
"but it costs a packet to service between each flight. That's what killed the concept: its high maintenance costs and long turnaround times."
The maintenance cost is an *outcome* of the development budget. It is *no* accident.
"In fact the shuttle has cast a long shadow over american space development. Even 40 years ago there were plans for much more fuel-efficient aerospike engines"
Not just plans. A 250 000lb thrust H2/O2 (not flightweight) was built and ground tested. A later 25Klb flight weight engine was tested by the UASF but severely damaged in ground tests. It's probably sitting on a shelf in a back office somewhere.
But MSFC *wanted* to go with staged combustion as *all* Russian engines of the time used it and they had *no* experience of it. The USAF had using storable propellants. Turns out using LH2 is *much* harder than a Hydrazine.
"and better solutions than ceramic tiles as reusable heat shields. "
NASA's *absolute* insistence on the *lightest* weight TPS (partly because neither engine mfg delivered what it was *expected to deliver in performance) made tiles the winner. Everything was sacrificed to this.
"Sadly, projects like VentureStar were canned in order to keep the pork flying"
Wrong. X33 allowed LockMart to hoover up c$1.1Bn which should have gone to companies with *no* existing launch vehicle to protect and who would have been *very* motivated to deliver a working design. Instead LockMart played the procurement process like a violin and strangled *effective* competition at birth. NASA did that to themselves.
"If the right people had made the right technical decisions some time around 1970,"
Nixon wanted to kill the space programme. He took his VP's report and threw away *everything* but the Shuttle.
" there could now be a much cheaper space programme, regularly flying SSTOs to multiple in-orbit destinations - possibly even further. "
We'll never know. So deal with what the situation is now.
"The whole space programme was only ever about appeasement: either the population, the media, the aerospace industry or local politicians."
Otherwise known as the stakeholders. US citizens were *never* one of those groups, they were just meant to fund it.
A little history helps to understand where you're going and why you got here.