A couple of years ago, I saw a PBS special on the shuttle program (and they just re-ran last week). It was a fairly frank assessment.
The entire purpose of the shuttle was to be re-useable, and save money. It never turned out that way...the practical rebuilding of the shuttle every time pushed per launch costs to near $1 billion....they pointed out you could build a sports stadium with that amount of money.
The large cargo bay was meant for building a space station....but that didn’t happen for the first 15 years of the program. So, it became a subsidized space delivery vehicle. It was still cheaper for the DoD to lauch satellites useing a normal rocket; but, NASA discounted the fees to get government and commercial customers to pay for cargo.
After Challenger, nobody wanted to use their space trucking service anymore, so they switched to make work science projects, and ultimately the space station construction.
But there was still one lingering design flaw. The placement of the crew compartment anywhere other than the very front of the craft was dangerous. As we saw (and NASA saw repeatedly), the foam from the fuel tank would bombard the shuttle. This doesn’t happen in a traditional rocket...and there is a ‘last chance’ ejection rocket under the crew compartment, in case things go wrong with the rocket. They had footage of a successful ejection in Russia.
All in all, it was fairly depressing. The program that worked with such purpose in getting to the moon had changed, and was adrift for several decades...and now is essentially over. Since it was PBS, they blamed Nixon, of course.
“..... pushed per launch costs to near $1 billion...”
Not to mention the astounding missed opportunity cost of having a pretend space program instead of a real one.
I caught Mark Kelly on his gun control rant on Fox News Sunday and while I don’t discount his personal tragedy, it struck me in a way completely aside from his interview - It mostly occured to me how this guy couldn’t polish the moon boots of an astronaut like Neil Armstrong, or most of the Apollo or pre-Apollo astronauts.
Such was the Shuttle. A mediocrity bred by a formerly great organization of mediocrities.
Now hopefully we can reconstitute some sort of a Saturn V follow-on (and all the space exploration possibilities it would bring) before all the useful data and technical folks are dead and gone.