Since the glory days of Apollo, NASA’s manned spaceflight program has seen its share of mission myopia, especially in finding the political will and funding to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.
But in a new, tell-tale book, former deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver can’t rule out her battles with NASA’s old guard on the eve 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 policymakers and Garver’s own desire to embrace and partner with new space starters 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 how difficult it can be to change national space policy at the highest levels of government. Garver spends much of her book outlining how entrenched political and space interests were more than reluctant to embrace changes they viewed as a threat to their own hegemony.
What was the most frustrating thing about working for NASA?
“In leadership, there was an interest in mostly redoing things we’d done in the past and an unwillingness to embrace ideas from outside and outside team members,” Garver told me in a phone interview this week.
In 1996, when I first joined NASA at age 35, I worked there for NASA administrator Dan Goldin for five years, Garver says. Goldin appreciated my out-of-the-box thinking, but many people around him didn’t, she says. When I returned almost eight years later in 2009 as deputy administrator under NASA administrator Charles Bolden, there was a similar problem.
During the post-Apollo era, one of NASA’s goals was to develop an entirely new, cheaper, and more routine way to access low-Earth orbit. That was the primary goal of the space shuttle program. But “NASA’s Initial Estimated $6 Billion” [shuttle] development costs quadrupled, and by the mid-1980s it was clear to anyone who paid attention that it would never deliver on its promised promise,” writes Garver in “Escaping Gravity.”
What about those who argue that robotic exploration, rather than human spaceflight, is the way to go?
These questions arise because we haven’t been good at articulating since Apollo and lead to a why and a goal for manned spaceflight, Garver says. With Apollo, that goal 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, Garver says.
In the Obama administration, we have set goals to reduce the cost of space transportation and invest in future sustainable technologies, Garver says.
But NASA grew up with Apollo and likes to do big things, Garver says. It has a lot of great infrastructure to fill and a lot of mouths to feed, she says. And congressional districts determine how these programs are made, Garver notes.
“That’s not the most efficient way to have a space program,” Garver said.
If we’d accomplished the space shuttle’s goal of cutting costs and making space access routine and affordable, we’d be in a different place right now, Garver says. So, to justify the shuttle, we said we needed a space station, she says. The space station had to ensure that we could operate regularly in space; making miracle drugs; expand commerce into space; and returning huge sums of money to our economy, she notes.
“But that hasn’t gotten off the ground yet,” Garver said.
But by 1996, during the Clinton administration’s second term, Goldin had initiated a major competition for government-industry partnerships called the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program, Garver writes. While that program only resulted in a short-lived test demonstration vehicle known as the X-33, the goal was to build a fully orbital spaceplane known as VentureStar. The idea was that VentureStar could be reused in days, not months, which would dramatically reduce the cost of putting a pound 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 problems, the program was simply stopped, she writes. “The X-33/VentureStar program never came close to launch,” writes Garver.
But it may well be the beginning of a new era at NASA, which would eventually lead to the kind of public-private partnership that characterizes the new space economy.
“So now we’re going back to the moon,” Garver said.
Current NASA administrator Bill Nelson says it must beat China to the moon, Garver notes. But we’ve sent humans to the moon six times, she says.
“We won that,” Garver said. “There is value in sending people to space; but that value must be articulated in such a way that its purpose determines how we do it.”
NASA’s Artemis program calls for the landing of two astronauts at the Moon’s South Pole by 2025. But the program is still not fully funded, Garver notes in her book. So it’s hard not to wonder if these short deadlines can realistically be met, as 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 bigger role in driving technologies needed for manned spaceflight in deep space, Garver says. The long pole of the tent that people don’t talk too much about is human survival 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 will be difficult for the private sector, Garver says.
As for structural changes that NASA should make in the future?
NASA is overbuilt for current tasks, Garver says. For example, she wonders whether the agency really needs nine government centers for its current mission.
Ironically, part of NASA’s problem could also be that the mainstream media isn’t treating space exploration and space science with the same questions they reserve for politics. People who write about space exploration tend to be cheerleaders for the cause, rather than independent observers who keep a close eye on how our national funds are spent.
Ultimately, though, “Escaping Gravity” offers a refreshingly candid, rare look at the inner workings of how America’s space policy is actually shaped. Unfortunately, we are lagging far behind the expectations and dreams of most space exploration enthusiasts. But Garver’s book provides a starting point for understanding why the lofty language of visionary space initiatives so often clashes with reality.