Re: The march of technology...
I have to admit, I was at one point of my life obsessed with the technology behind space flight. I join you in your sentiments and agree with you completely. While the technology has progressed substantially in new rocket designs, as a technologist (self proclaimed) I am thoroughly disappointed with the rate of progress.
I believe that last 15 years of space travel has been a massive success for no other reason but having attempted to move past the nonsense related to the archaic model of development of space travel. I believe strongly that we have made far more progress since privatization of space flight has become a reality. Companies like SpaceX and Scaled Composites or even just John Carmack's endevours into vertical takeoff and landing has been a huge improvement.
SpaceX is likely to begin losing their agility before long. They are slowly letting NASA and the government in general have too much say in their development. Orion is a scary project because there is too much of the old model involved in their business.
I think that SpaceX and Bigelow combined could be wonderful. They could in theory open the path for making it possible to begin making far better space craft... in space. Maybe within ten years we'll see companies like Virgin shuttling people to and from a space station where they can construct large scale space transport without first needing heavy lifters like Orion. It would be optimal to launch large spacecraft as pieces on top of smaller vehicles, assemble them in space and then launch them. The next logical step wouldn't be going to the moon, but instead going to lunar orbit and establishing an orbital station that could be used as a station to ferry people too and from the moon using light weight vehicles well suited to the task.
The idea of Orion has always been scary because it suggests that we need to be able to reach our chosen destinations directly from the earth's surface. Building a rocket that can go directly to the moon always sounded stupid to me. A space station in earth's orbit and another in lunar orbit could make this far more efficient. Then there's mars and beyond. Just the cost of launching directly from earth to the moon is outrageous. The massive amount of fuel required is unacceptable.
How about the additional benefits of being able to keep rescue vehicles on the ready at the stations we build? As a result, it would pave a path that could truly limit the dangers of being stranded because all rescue missions would have to be launched from the earth's surface. I don't think we'll see personal space ships like those in the TV shows like FireFly any time real soon, but I do think we can see vessels making regular trips from earth to the moon to mars and back within 20 years.
Things are really improving and it's certainly a good thing to have another player in the game to reach space. But a massive vessel like Orion just seems like the wrong way to do it :(