How anyone can look at the ISS and Shuttle together
and conclude it was all a waste of time and money is utterly beyond my comprehension. The shuttle program and the ISS are among the most astounding and inspiring accomplishments of the human race to date.
A matter of perspective, I guess. A lot of clever engineering, but that's all I see. Nothing very inspiring. We spent over a billion dollars to get a beautiful picture, and not much else. For a fraction of that we could have a probe around another planet, returning gigabytes of exciting new information.
Yes, other budgets for other projects did not get funded properly, but it's not (or it doesn't need to be) a zero-sum game. Perhaps a few trillion less spent on military hardware would have helped fund some of those other space endeavours.
Well, good luck with that. The reality is that it IS a zero-sum game. If we were somehow able to turn our culture around so it valued scientific knowledge more than having a big army... well, that really would be inspiring!
I'm reminded of this XKCD cartoon
, which has this ALT text attached...
The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.
But we don't need the shuttle, or even reusable launch vehicles, to continue exploring space.