Kennedy Space CenterBy Michael Belfiore.

February 1, 2010.

Is Obama’s just-released NASA budget the “death march for the future of U.S. human space flight,” as Senator Richard Shelby proclaims on his website today? Or is it in fact a new beginning for the space agency?

Obama’s proposed 2011 budget actually increases NASA’s budget by $6 billion. What has Shelby and others up in arms is Obama’s plan to axe the big-ticket return-to-the-moon program, launched without adequate funding by his predecessor. Nine billion dollars in the hole and counting, the Constellation program has been busy trying to reclaim NASA’s glory days with an inherently flawed design.

The design relies on an elongated version of the solid rocket booster that doomed Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Solid rocket boosters cannot be shut down in an emergency and this segmented version relies on what amounts to giant washers to keep hot gases in, adding multiple points of failure compared with a liquid-fuel design. As shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane said in his book Riding Rockets, “At the most fundamental level, modern solid rocket boosters are no different from the first rockets launched by the Chinese thousands of years ago—after ignition they have to work because nothing can be done if they don’t. And, typically, when they do not work, the failure mode is catastrophic.”

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