A Rocket To Nowhere (via) helps me make much better sense out of our absurd Space Shuttle Program.
Clearly this primitive space plane must have been a sacred artifact, used in religious rituals to deliver sacrifice to a sky god.
Then he goes on to a more rational explanation of why the Shuttle Program (and space station) look like they do, much of it rooted in the Cold War. Now that those goals are irrelevant, its purpose becomes circular:
In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry - the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong.
This closed cycle is so perfect that the last NASA administrator even cancelled the only mission in which there was a compelling need for a manned space flight - the Hubble telescope repair and upgrade - on the grounds that it would be too dangerous to fly the Shuttle away from the ISS, thereby detaching the program from its last connection to reason and leaving it free to float off into its current absurdist theater of backflips, gap fillers, Canadarms and heroic expeditions to the bottom of the spacecraft.
There is no satisfactory answer for why all this commotion must take place in orbit. To the uneducated mind, it would seem we could accomplish our current manned space flight objectives more easily by not launching any astronauts into space at all - leaving the Shuttle and ISS on the ground would result in massive savings without the slighest impact on basic science, while also increasing mission safety by many orders of magnitude. It might even bring mission costs within the original 1970's estimates, and allow us to continue the Shuttle program well into the middle of the century.
The entire post is quite good, and altogether more informative than the conclusion that I quote here.