Keith's note: Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach recently spoke his mind (audio file) as Shuttle Discovery was being prepared for launch - the last time anyone will prepare a Space Shuttle for launch. "We're all victims of poor policy out of Washington, DC - both at the NASA level and the executive branch of the government. ... I'm embarrassed that we don't have better guidance out of Washington, DC. Throughout the history of the manned spaceflight program we've always had another program to transition into. .. we had that and it got cancelled and we don't have anything ... frankly as a senior NASA manager I would like to apologize that we don't have that."
Let's see, NASA is still building Constellation's Orion (MPCV) human spacecraft, is about to announce its new SLS heavy launch vehicle design (pretty much an Ares -V variant), and SpaceX is gearing up to launch humans and cargo to the ISS aboard Dragon spacecraft a few miles away from Leinbach's office with NASA as a customer. Yes, its the end of this particular government-operated human space flight program and a lot of people will be laid off (despite working their butts off for years), but it is rather inaccurate for Leinbach to state that "we don't have anything".
NASA abandoned the Saturn V because trips to the Moon were over and the Space Shuttle was to be used to build things in low Earth orbit. The ISS is now completed, so the continued rationale for the shuttle is a hard case to make. Now we need a way to use the ISS with vehicles better suited to the task - at a price lower than NASA can do on its own while getting ready for what comes after ISS.
Despite the steady progression from one program to the next that Leinbach suggests, he forgets to mention that there was a 6 year gap between the Apollo-Soyuz flight and STS-1. Dragon will be flying people much sooner than 6 years - and certainly much sooner than NASA's Ares 1 would have flown crews in Orion.
Things change Mike. The shuttle's retirement was announced 7 years ago. This is not exactly a surprise.