I grew up reading science fiction, watching Star Trek, and dreaming of a future in space. I became an Aerospace Engineer, studied orbital mechanics and control systems, and later I earned an MS in Physics (Observational Astronomy). I was star struck. Needless to say, I have been disappointed with our lack of progress in space exploration.
The Apollo program was a cold war effort motivated by beating the Russians and while it was an amazing feat of technological development, it did not leave us with any sustainable capability. The original concept of the Space Shuttle would have been much better. It would have been totally reusable, with a flying delta winged booster carrying the shuttle up before detaching and returning to Earth. But Congress nickled and dimed NASA to death, literally. If that original design had been used, there would have been no solid rocket boosters to blow up, or drop insulation on vulnerable heat tiles. But when the Atlantis touches down, we won't even have that capability any more.
In more recent years, there have been efforts at the privatization of space exploration, and I cheered when Space Ship One won the X-Prize, but more needs to be done, and it is still hard to get the financial resources needed to create the infrastructure that a sustainable presence in space requires. NASA still possesses remarkable facilities and despite their brain drain, they still have a lot of very smart people working for them, but they are being run by bean counters who lack vision and are being strangled by the Government. They need to break free, create a vision for sustainable space exploration, and take their case to the American people, perhaps even to the world. There is an organization, called Kickstarter that allows people who need financial backing to reach out to the public in an effort to gain that backing. I recently supported an independent publisher through Kickstarter, and it has occurred to me that this could be a new model for a number of endeavors, including space exploration.
Another possible method of funding would be to allow tax payers to actually have some discretion as to where their tax dollars go. I read a short story many years ago that used this as the basic premise (it was a Christmas story, and I think it was called World Peace). When the people in that world filed their tax returns they could go through all the possible programs and select those that they wanted to support.
Of course, if our government is really serious about turning our economy around and creating jobs, they could just increase NASA's budget instead of spending money paving roads that don't really need it. Economic studies (see this one, for example) have shown the benefits of spending on space (as opposed to spending on defense). And for those who think that NASA gets lots of money already, they don't. NASA's budget for 2011 is 19 billion dollars, which is less than 1 % of the Federal Budget.
And for the skeptics out there it is already being done:
Scientists Turn to Crowds on the Web to Finance Their Projects
To Serve Man, with Software
2 weeks ago