There's an excellent article in this week's Space Review, "Somewhat as a clamor in the wilderness" by Bob Mahoney. He discusses the continuing controversy among space aficionados regarding the design choices made in NASA's 2005 ESAS (exploration space architecture study, famously referred to by Mike Griffin as "Apollo on steroids"). He compares this to discussions in the very early 1960's on the "Apollo mode decision," which ended up to be lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR). There was similar passionate debate about this at the time, but once NASA chose LOR, everyone got behind the decision and made it work (which of course it did very well). The difference is that more than two years after the ESAS decision, there is still a lot of passionate and sometimes bitter discussion of the choices.
Some Constellation critics may be less technically qualified than others to criticize NASA's decisions, though there are many knowledgeable critics, and some staunch defenders clearly have vested interests. But Mahoney points out that the major failing of ESAS and of NASA in promoting it is that it has failed to truly engage or inspire the public. As he says in one of his subtitles, "ESAS: That's It?" Even if it is technically well-grounded, NASA has done little to connect what seems to many to be a scaled-up replay of Apollo with an exciting and potentially world-changing vision of a future spacefaring civilization. And where the public goes, politicians often follow. If space isn't something that inspires people, then it may as well be just another federal program to a congressperson or new president looking for things to trade or cut.
I was struck by a similar feeling when I reviewed the AMNH/NASA "Field Trip to the Moon" DVD yesterday. It may have educational value, but it was just OK, and the NASA visuals were really not that impressive. I'm certainly not the most talented speaker or educator you could find, but I can fire up a free space flight simulator (Orbiter) for 20 minutes and at least make returning to the Moon look exciting to a library room full of kids and adults. Because it is exciting. I am excited about it and I share that excitement when I talk about space and show these simulated spaceflights. I know it's just a simulation, and really doing it is a lot harder. NASA is not alone in holding the keys to the future, Apollo is a tough act to follow, and 2001 unfortunately wasn't 2001. But I can see why some people are disappointed.