Today is the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Challenger. I remember that day quite vividly. I was in college at the time, and the shuttle was still new enough that I set my alarm clock to wake up in time to watch the launch. I remeber seeing the explosion, and knowing instantly what had happened. The TV reporter though didn't. (I believe it was Kent Shockneck) He kept up his routine of mindless chatter about what the mission was going to accomplish, while I was sitting there with tears of rage and grief running down my face screaming at him on the screen. I have always felt a deep and abiding love for the space program. I believe it is our destiny (and our best chance for ultimate survival) to settle the solar system and the stars. I was grieving not only the astronauts just killed, but the damage done to the exploration of space in general. I knew there would be a protracted delay, especially because of the presence of McAuliffe. (She was a civilian, a teacher, who was chosen to fly into space for essentially PR purposes.)
The shuttle program has proven to have been a major mistake. If we had simply maintained our manned rocket program we would have accomplished as much, and as probably more, as we have with the shuttles. In my opinion the shuttle program has set back our progress in space by at least a decade.
I believe that the Air Force has secretively developed a much more effective space plane program. Given both the facts that Rutan has developed an experimental space plane that works (and is currently developing a commercial version) and the retirement of the spy plane program, I think it must be assumed that the Air Force has developed a space plane.
That being said, I firmly believe that the future of space exploration and settlement is in private commercial enterprise. NASA has lead the way, now it is time for a modern Prince Henry to step forward.