Since the glory days of Apollo, NASA’s human spaceflight program has seen its share of mission myopia, particularly when finding the political will and funding to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.
But in a new tell-all book, former Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver pulls no punches in chronicling her battles with NASA’s old guard on the cusp of the new space revolution. Garver’s tenure as deputy administrator coincided with the first term of President Barack Obama’s administration and was rife with controversy between conventional NASA policy makers and Garver’s own desire to embrace and partner with new space upstarts like Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Her book, “Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age,” wastes no time in detailing just how difficult it can be to change national space policy at the highest levels of government. Garver spends a large part of her book outlining how entrenched political and aerospace interests were more than reluctant to embrace any changes which they viewed as a threat to their own hegemony.
What was the most frustrating thing about working for NASA?
“In the leadership, there was an interest in primarily redoing things we had done in the past and a reluctance to embrace outside ideas and outside team members,” Garver told me in a phone interview this week.
In 1996, when I first went to NASA at age 35, I was there for five years working for NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, says Garver. Goldin appreciated my out of the box thinking, but a lot of people surrounding him didn’t, she says. Then in 2009, when I came back almost eight years later as deputy administrator under NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, there was a similar issue.
During the post Apollo era, one of NASA’s stated goals was to develop an entirely new, lower cost and more routine way of accessing low-Earth orbit. That was the primary goal of the space shuttle program. But “NASA’s initial estimated $6 billion [shuttle] development cost quadrupled and by the mid-1980s it was obvious to anyone paying attention that it was never going to deliver on its stated promise,” Garver writes in “Escaping Gravity.”
What about those who argue that robotic exploration, rather than human spaceflight, is the way to go?
These questions come up because since Apollo, we haven’t done a great job of articulating and leading to a why and a purpose for human spaceflight, says Garver. With Apollo that purpose was so clear, she says. We wanted to show the world that they were choosing between democratic and socialist societies and that democracy was the way to advance science and technology, says Garver.
In the Obama administration, we set goals of lowering the cost of space transportation and investing in future sustainable technologies, says Garver.
But NASA grew up on Apollo and likes doing big things, says Garver. It has a lot of big infrastructure to fill and a lot of mouths to feed, she says. And congressional districts are driving how these programs are created, Garver notes.
“That’s not the most efficient way to have a space program,” said Garver.
Had we achieved the space shuttle’s goal of reducing costs and making access to space routine and affordable, we would be in a different place today, says Garver. So, to justify the shuttle, we said we needed a space station, she says. The space station was to ensure that we could have regular operations in space; create miracle drugs; expand commerce into space; and return huge sums of money back into our economy, she notes.
“But that didn’t pan out yet either,” said Garver.
Yet by 1996, during the second term of the Clinton administration, Goldin had initiated a large competition for government-industry partnerships called the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program, Garver writes. Although that program only resulted in a short-lived test demonstration vehicle known as the X-33, its goal was to build a full-scale orbital spaceplane, known as VentureStar. The idea was that VentureStar could be reused again in days not months, which would dramatically lower the costs for a putting a pound of payload into orbit —- from $10,000 to $1,000.
The X-33/VentureStar initiative was a public private partnership between Lockheed Martin and NASA, Garver notes in her book. But when the X-33 ran into technical challenges, the program was simply terminated, she writes. “The X-33/VentureStar program never came close to launching,” writes Garver.
But arguably, it did mark the beginning of a new era at NASA, which would eventually lead to the kind of public-private cooperation that is a hallmark of the new space economy.
“So, now we’re going back to the Moon,” said Garver.
Current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson says it’s to beat China to the Moon, Garver notes. But we’ve sent humans to the Moon six times, she says.
“We won that,” said Garver. “There’s value in sending humans to space; but that value should be articulated in a way that its purpose drives how we go about doing it.”
NASA’s Artemis program calls for landing two astronauts at the lunar South Pole by 2025. But the program is still not fully funded, Garver notes in her book. Thus, it’s hard not to wonder if these short deadlines can realistically be met, given that we’re already halfway through 2022.
As for what NASA should be doing in terms of human spaceflight that it currently isn’t?
NASA could play a larger role in driving technologies needed for human spaceflight in deep space, says Garver. The long pole of the tent that people don’t talk about too much is human survivability in these environments, she says.
That is, how our physiology will change in deep space.
NASA has done some of that research but needs to lead it because that’s something that will be hard for the private sector to do, says Garver.
As for structural changes NASA should make going forward?
NASA is overbuilt for the current tasks, says Garver. For instance, she wonders if the agency really needs nine government centers for its current mission load.
Part of NASA’s problem, ironically, could also be that the mainstream media doesn’t cover space exploration and space science with the same questioning rigor that they reserve for politics. People writing about space exploration are mostly cheerleaders for the cause, rather than independent observers keeping a watchful eye on how our national monies are spent.
Yet in the end, “Escaping Gravity” offers a refreshingly candid, rare inside look at the inner workings of how America’s space policy is actually crafted. Sadly, we remain well behind curve on most space exploration enthusiasts’ hopes and dreams. But Garver’s book provides a starting point in understanding why the lofty language of visionary space initiatives so often clashes with reality.