My opinion on why NASA's plans inspired in the 1960's but meets with indifference now.
1. NASA is no longer seen as leading the way to the future. In the 1960's, it looked like NASA would be the organization that would lead the world into an exciting future. The lunar landings would be the first step. But then we had the lack of follow up in the 1970's. The decades of failure and waste from the space shuttle.
2. Weak funding and weak plans. Back then NASA was given a mandate, had credible plans and was funded to achieve it. Since then presidents have talked about the moon and Mars but have not followed through with proper funding. The plans do not look like credible for achieving ambitious goals.
3. Good programs not being strongly expanded and rapidly pursued. This results inability to develop momentum. The only inspiring programs that NASA has now are not getting enough and follow through. There are several interesting opportunities coming from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts but they are not being promptly pursued with strong funding. The Plasma magnet, World Imagers and magnetically inflated large structures in space.
4. Lack of strongly articulated and strongly
supported purpose in space. Just going back to the moon with a plan for 4 man crews by 2017 and calling it the development of a permanent moon presence reeks of the weak and stumbling efforts for a space station. A decade or more of redesigns and cutbacks and over a decade of uninspiring execution.
5. NASA cannot deliver the future when it is mainly anchored to the failed past. Change the way things are done which have not worked and which have delivered uninspiring results. The bureaucratic funding and carrying forward of clearly failed technology and programs saps the ability to deliver radical progress. NASA has made a start with some prize based funding approaches.
To do really big things we need to move beyond chemical rocket propulsion.
I think the purpose should be: The development, exploration and colonization of space.
To really make something happen it will take more than NASA (unless got 10 to 100 times the budget it has). Colonization friendly policies and laws need to be created to involve strong commercial interest. Laws that will allow and encourage private enterprise to actively drive development and colonization.
Firstly, create something like a Homestead act for space
The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.
A homesteader had only to be the head of a household and at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and former slaves came to meet the challenge of "proving up" and keeping this "free land". Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to "prove up". A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers. The act was later copied with some modifications by Canada in the form of the Dominion Lands Act. Similar acts—usually termed the Selection Acts—were passed in the various Australian colonies in the 1860s, beginning in 1861 in New South Wales.
Others have also thought that US public land policy and applications for the Moon and Mars should be adopted and others think there should be a Homestead Act for Orbital space. The National Space Society had some interesting and detailed ideas for laws favorable to space development.
I think initially the Homestead Act should allow for robotic development of space properties. The Homestead Act required the Homesteader to build a house and improve the land and live on it for 5 years and then prove the work was done at the end of 5 years. A space Homestead Act should also require significant development and progress over fixed time frames.
1. Returning minerals or energy to the earth from the space property.
2. Creation of a colony or settlement.
3. Creation of a temporary lodging or entertainment facility
4. Other significant and measurable activity that leads to
rapidly developing and accessing space resources and being able to return wealth and value to earth. Energy, raw materials, knowledge and entertainment should be obtained and tourism developed. In the early stages reaching significant milestones towards those goals should be rewarded with property rights. It is not just land in space but slots in orbits, various communication spectrum etc...
To the original point: NASA needs to be changed to be a significant part of making an inspiring future happen. For space to be part of an inspiring future, the biggest bang would be to change the rules to reward those who contribute to making it happen.