Alternate History: The final frontier
That said, what-if stories do occasionally make for some delicious mind candy.
This picture was taken 40 years ago today. The man in the suit is Eugene Cernan, the last human being to set foot on another celestial body....
In 1968 NASA reached a cross-roads. The Apollo program was about to make good on JFK's promise and there was serious debate both in Congress and within NASA itself about the Agency's Post-Apollo future. The debators fell into two broad camps, those who assumed that NASA's budget would grow in the wake of the moon landings (or at least remain the same), and those who assumed that it would shrink.
As a massive space enthusiast President Johnson had encouraged NASA administrator Thomas O. Paine to dream big, but when Richard Nixon was sworn in as President in January of 1969, he became a Democrat in a Republican administration. Paine submitted his resignation, but the Nixon Administration asked him to stay on. Some have since theorized that he was kept on as a patsy should the Kennedy/Johnson-backed Apollo program fail.
However, the "Optimists" in NASA never got that memo. Despite being informed by the Nixon Administration that NASA’s budget would be capped at $3.5 billion. Paine, continued to request ever larger budgets (4.5 billion for f.y. 71, 9 billion for f.y. 72) and seemed to base his plans for NASA's future on the assumption that he would get them. Nixon was not amused, NASA lost what little goodwill it still had with the Administration.
Now lets play "what if?"
What if in 1969 Nixon had accepted Paine's resignation and put someone from NASA's realist/pessimist faction in charge? Nixon would eventually replace Paine with James C. Fletcher so lets just say that Fletcher gets the job early. This leads to an alternate timeline wherein NASA and the Nixon Administration are able reach an amiable compromise on NASA's future. The deal with Nixon involves steady funding of 3.2 billion dollars (a 15% cut compared Johnson era levels but more than the 2.9 they got in our timeline) on the condition that NASA starts providing more immediate political and economic benefits.
Fletcher was a strong proponent of robotic exploration, and one of the lead administrators of the Apollo Applications Program (AAP). So in October of 71 after declaring Apollo 15 the most successful manned flight ever achieved. Fletcher announces that NASA Astronauts will not be returning to the moon. The Saturn 5 rockets that have already been built to launch Apollos 16, 17, 18, and 19 will instead be used to launch a series of four space stations into Low and High Earth orbit. Crew and supplies would be delivered to the stations by Apollo CSMs. The assembly lines that were dismantled in our timeline would stay in place (Yay for Jobs!) but at a reduced production rate.
(A similar plan was submitted in our own timeline but with Paine in charge it never got anywhere)
These along with being scientific platforms these stations would act as test-beds for several technologies that in 1970 are just beginning to be developed. Satellite-based Communications, Surveillance, and Navigation (GPS) reach maturity much earlier in this timeline, fulfilling Fletcher's promise to provide economic benefits.
At the superpower summit in Moscow in May 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin sign an agreement allowing Russian Spacecraft to dock with the American Stations. (analogous to the Apollo Soyuz Test Project in our timeline) Nixon also surprises the agency by telling reporters shortly after the launch of Skylab I in 1973 that women and minorities would live and work on board the Space Stations. The agency also announces a plan to fly educators, a reporters, and possibly other non-astronaut space travelers on “Visitor” missions to the Space Stations.
Without the financial and political pressure of developing the space shuttle NASA instead focuses on incremental upgrades to spacecraft/launchers and expansion of it's automated science missions. The End result being a much higher density of flights and expanded access to space despite the initial cuts.