It seems to me that the reasons for Man to spend the money to explore space have evolved over the years. Pure knowledge has come out of this contest badly mauled, as other donsiderations drive large expenditures.
At first it was a military-political contest between the US and the USSR. Looking for prestige in the world, each sought dramatic missions to demonstrate their prowess and abilities. Despite assurances to the contrary, I’m sure NEO was weaponized. The manned lunar landings lost their glamor, so the scene turned to space labs.
MIR and SpaceLab occupied the public’s interest for years and then came the ISS. It’s promise has faded, and the US and Russia seem to have stagnated.
The Europeans seem to have formed an effective collaboration which is enabling them to be effective in both science and commerce.
The US missions to Mars were exciting, and yet Curiosity isn’t generating much enthusiasm any more.
China is positioning herself to have the same capabilities as the US and USSR, and may have the monolithic national will to push forward. If they could effect a trusted cooperation with that other economy able to focus itself where it would like, Russia, they could do anything within any time period.
Meantime, smaller natiions are nibbling at the edges of space exploration, enhancing their national images.
It looks as if the US can forget it’s glory days, though I think Curiosity is one helluva glory grabber, and probably watch as other countries form partnerships and push exploration farther and farther. I think the US has become a bit bored, a bit blase and a bit broke, and we’ll have to settle for negotiating minor roles on the missions of other partnerships.
I certainly could be wrong, too, but wishful thinking and waving old flags won’t be what demonstrates that.