After 134 missions, 5 shuttles, 14 lives lost, and $174 billion dollars, the space shuttle program is scheduled to end on February 27, 2010. The next generation of launch vehicles is still up in the air but no one is talking about a reusable vehicle like the shuttle. Meanwhile the Russians are essentially still using the same one-time-use Soyuz system they've been launching since the 70's at much lower costs. So now that we're approaching the end of an era in space exploration, let's ask the question: was the shuttle program worth it?
If you ask the American public it was. A Rassmusen Reports survey showed that 52% of those polled though the shuttles were worth the cost in dollars and lives, while only 28% disagreed. Encouragingly, even in tough economic times like the present, 78% of Americans think it's important or very important to have an unmanned space exploration program and 72% say the same about a manned space exploration program.
I'm grateful that the US keeps investing in space exploration, however I personally think that the shuttle program was a poor way to do it. With a fleet of vehicles that can only go into low-earth orbit there was no real destination for the shuttle program until the building of the International Space Station (and even then one has to ask why are we going there?). Without a destination, the shuttle program fell into a "cause-of-the-year" syndrome where the shuttle became a zero-G research lab, a construction vehicle, a delivery truck, and a service van, to name a few. Without a focused mission, NASA lost much of the public attention it had with the Apollo program. Now if you ask people why NASA sends men and women into space you're likely to get responses like "good question".
I'm not trying to pin all of the inefficiencies and short-comings of the American space program on the shuttles, but I have to wonder if we could have done more over the past 30 years without it.