What is the real goal of human space exploration?
The Augustine Committee's report states the following:
A human landing followed by an extended human presence on Mars stands prominently above all other opportunities for exploration. Mars is unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination in the inner solar system, with a planetary history much like Earth’s. It possesses resources that can be used for life support and propellants. If humans are ever to live for long periods on another planetary surface, it is likely to be on Mars.
However, the Committee also notes that we are far from being able to visit the surface of Mars now. If that's the case, does it make sense to consider Mars to be the "ultimate destination for human exploration"? Does it make sense to make any particular physical location or orbit such an overriding goal or "ultimate destination", and thus perhaps mask more near-term goals that are both important and achievable?
I would argue that the exploration program should not be driven by specific destinations. Independence from preconceived destinations could be an advantage of the Flexible Path if that path weren't chosen mainly as a progression towards the Martian surface. However, the Flexible Path is Mars-centric; in the report it's called a "flexible path to Mars".
Instead of defining an exploration effort by a physical location, it should be defined by goals that address national needs, solve national problems, and delivering national benefits. In fact the report itself includes the following passage centered on national benefits rather than physical locations:
How will we explore to deliver the greatest benefit to the nation? Planning for a human spaceflight program should begin with a choice about its goals—rather than a choice of possible destinations. Destinations should derive from goals, and alternative architectures may be weighed against those goals. There is now a strong consensus in the United States that the next step in human spaceflight is to travel beyond low-Earth orbit. This should carry important benefits to society, including: driving technological innovation; developing commercial industries and important national capabilities; and contributing to our expertise in further exploration. Human exploration can contribute appropriately to the expansion of scientific knowledge, particularly in areas such as field geology, and it is in the interest of both science and human spaceflight that a credible and well-rationalized strategy of coordination between them be developed. Crucially, human spaceflight objectives should broadly align with key national objectives.
If destinations should derive from nationally-important goals, then let's not get ahead of ourselves and pick a specific destination like the surface of Mars as the "ultimate destination for exploration". Let Mars and all of the other destinations fend for themselves in terms of the national benefits we can expect from getting there, and factor in the national costs and risks we can expect in getting there. Maybe Mars will still stand out in such an analysis - but let's do the analysis.
If reaching the surface of Mars is out of reach given the available exploration budget, let's find an exploration path that still delivers national benefits even if it isn't up to the task of reaching Mars. With the Flexible Path, for example, that might mean choosing an affordable approach that is not able to reach even Mars orbit, but that can deliver benefits beyond LEO but closer to Earth through commercial incentives, science, space infrastructure development, and space resource extraction.