The “trickle-down” effect has largely evaporated. In the fifties and sixties, NASA required new alloys, new plastics and new computers to achieve certain difficult but not impossible goals; to put a man in orbit and then eventually on the moon. The blank check the U.S. Government gave NASA allowed them to sponsor huge amounts of technological and engineering research. The results of that research found its way into commercial and consumer products.
Nowadays, these kinds of government subsidies are unnecessary. The pace of technological development is pushed along by corporations competing to sell the latest car or personal computer. What new innovations were required to build the space shuttle? What new consumer or commercial products are likiely to stem from it? Calling something “space-age” used to be impressive; now it seems hokey and dated.
Science can still benefit greatly from NASA’s research, but the discovery of unusual stellar effects is not likely to lead to stronger alloys. SETI’s demand for faster computers may drive research, but no more so than the demand for the Pentium V. If “better, cheaper, faster” remains the NASA slogan, they may well go to Best Buy and plunk down some bucks for a new computer when they need one, just like the civilians.
Space exploration as performed by NASA no longer exists as a means to stimulate engineering research. Maybe if a president determined to land men on Mars and safely return them to Earth, we’d see a rush of engineering research to build elaborate spaceships and life-support systems. Without such a difficult but attainable goal in mind, NASA simply flails around. The space station by itself serves no major engineering purpose, since it represents a problem solved. It wasn’t even necessary to actually put the station into service once all the problems had been worked out on paper.
Nowadays, we don’t need NASA for new engineering ideas, but there remains vast potential from the private sector. For a private company, the problem is not to put a man in orbit, but to do it cheaply enough to make it profitable. This is where we’ll see space exploration made accessable and fire up public interest again.