One of the saddest moments in recent history -- for me, at least -- came last July, when the Shuttle fleet was retired for good. Granted that it was technologically obsolete and had killed fourteen people with its fragility. From that moment to this one, the United States has had no ability to put astronauts in orbit without assistance from Russia.
We had ceded the high ground to the rest of the world. Should they decide to deny us the use of their facilities, we would have no recourse.
The "high ground" is the trump card in all sorts of conflicts. It's not always obvious what constitutes the "high ground" in a given situation. Whatever it is, it bestows an enduring advantage over all other contestants upon its possessor. Geostrategically, the high ground of today is low Earth orbit. The nation that commands low Earth orbit can impose its will on the rest of the world.
There was a glimmer of light earlier today. SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the first spacecraft to be designed, built, and launched into orbit entirely by a private corporation, mated to the International Space Station in an exemplary display of precision engineering. The capsule was, of course, unmanned; the days when we would put a man into an untested spacecraft and hope for the best are well behind us. However, Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and principal visionary, expects that successors to the Dragon will be flying men into space in a few years' time.
Unless an entirely unheralded new spacecraft should make its bow before that, American astronauts will continue riding into orbit in Russian craft launched from the Baikonur astrodrome...and paying exorbitant taxi fees for the privilege.
This must change. Must. If it doesn't, the United States will find itself subordinated to one of the other spacefaring powers sooner or later. As world conditions stand, probably sooner.
Putting men into ballistic capsules and propelling them into space with rockets over which they have essentially no control is a bad idea, as badly obsolete as the Shuttles were. The ballistic capsule as a human transport is simply too limiting for a spacefaring future. We need reusable spacecraft for other reasons, too. I hope someone out there -- preferably someone animated by good wholesome capitalistic profit motives -- is working on a space plane. More, I hope he can resist the pressure that will undoubtedly be put on him to make it into a ramshackle delivery truck -- the sort of crossbred design that ultimately doomed the Shuttles.
America cannot remain pre-eminent among the nations if it remains dependent on other nations to reach the high ground. Let private enterprise do the job, by all means, but keep in mind the military aspects of the need as well. Like it or not, there will eventually be weapons in space. There will be combat in Earth orbit, possibly over those aforementioned weapons. The nation with the better systems for deployment and recovery from Earth orbit, both of men and materiel, will be Terra's top dog.
Americans might not want to impose ourselves and our ways on other nations, but we'd like it even less were other nations to impose themselves and their ways on us. Capabilities of that sort have a habit of being used.