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Outgoing NASA Deputy Reflects on High-profile, Big-money Programs

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver looks on as her boss, Charles Bolden, addresses agency employees for the first time. Credit: NASA photo by Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — When NASA’s then-brand new administrator, Charles Bolden, and his deputy, Lori Garver, addressed the agency’s rank and file for the first time since their July 17, 2009, swearing in, it was clear that big changes were afoot. 

The space shuttle, after nearly three decades of service and two fatal accidents, was on its way out. Meanwhile, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by newly elected President Barack Obama was taking a hard look at plans drafted by his predecessor — and approved by Congress — to replace the shuttle with vehicles that would return U.S. astronauts to the Moon. 

What nobody, including Garver, knew at the time was that she would quickly become the face of the resulting changes, unveiled the following winter, and as such a lightning rod for those who opposed them. 

In that debut address, Bolden offered reassurance that the review of the Moon-bound Constellation program was “not something to fear.”

But many NASA employees were indeed fearful, and some actively rebelled. When the Obama administration rolled out its proposal to scrap the “unsustainable” program and invest a chunk of the savings in a commercial crew initiative and a raft of “game-changing” exploration technologies, many NASA constituencies were already hard at work trying to save some of its key elements. 

By the time Obama visited Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in April 2010 to challenge NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, Constellation’s Orion crew capsule was back in the picture. By year’s end, Congress, against the administration’s wishes, directed NASA to build the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS), a shuttle-derived rocket bearing close resemblance to Constellation’s Ares 5 heavy lifter.

“Canceling tens of billion, much less $100 billion programs, is nearly impossible in government,” Garver told SpaceNews during her final week in the job. The 52-year-old space policy wonk begins a new career Sept. 9 as general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association.

“The relentless momentum of the status quo is very large,” Garver said Sept. 4. “And that is not unrelated to my view that we should utilize nongovernment resources, investments and partners whenever possible. Because those are the programs that are affordable and competitive.”

The job of defending the administration’s NASA plans was a natural fit for Garver, who as the Obama campaign’s lead space adviser and later as head of the president-elect’s NASA transition team had a major role in shaping them. But she did not expect to take such a prominent, public role once she and Bolden were sworn in.

“One of the challenging things for me was being put in the position early of having to be the spokesperson for a lot this,” she said. “It was not something that, coming from the deputy administrator, was going to be as well received as if the administrator had been delivering the message.”

Bolden, a retired Marine Corps major general and former shuttle commander loyal to his troops and trusted by lawmakers, had quickly lost the White House’s confidence in his ability to explain and defend administration policy. During his first week on the job, NASA abruptly canceled a long list of scheduled media interviews with Bolden after the White House took issue with his performance during a televised all-hands meeting. Among the causes for concern, current and former administration officials have told SpaceNews, was Bolden’s off-script comments about the Moon and Mars and the role NASA would play in a National Security Council-led space policy review then getting underway. “When the budget came out, they were not comfortable he could defend it,” one official said.

Subsequent NASA press briefings often were held via teleconference with Bolden reading an opening statement before turning it over to Garver or another official to field questions.

It is Garver who will forever be known as the champion of NASA’s Commercial Crew initiative, which aims to outsource crew transportation to and from the international space station.

The program has proven resilient despite plenty of opposition, but continued budget uncertainty threatens NASA’s plans to keep at least two U.S. companies in the running to fly astronauts to the space station by 2017. 

Garver does not see the budget pressure letting up any time soon.

“If we see the likely scenario of flat or declining budgets, my projection would be that there are slips to the major programs,” she said. This includes Commercial Crew and the Asteroid Retrieval Mission the Obama administration rolled out this spring amid considerable skepticism, she said. 

Orion and SLS are likewise likely to slip, with or without outside budget pressure, Garver said.

“The nature of these large government-led spaceflight programs has been cost growth and schedule slips,” she said. “Space station was an $8 billion program and it ended up being a $100 billion program. And we consider it a huge success.

“The reason [the Obama administration] did not propose programs like this is because we believe to get out of that paradigm we needed to invest in technology, to do these technology demonstration missions that we proposed,” Garver continued. “But that is not what Congress said [to do]. So now we have a program that’s not as dissimilar to Constellation as the president proposed.”

If NASA occasionally struggled to articulate a compelling rationale for returning to the Moon a generation after sending astronauts there for the first time, it has had a much tougher time convincing Congress, if not the general public, that a tiny asteroid hauled into lunar orbit by an unmanned tug is a worthwhile destination for Orion and its crew. 

Even on her way out the door — her last day was Sept. 6 — Garver defended the mission, which NASA thinks it can accomplish for less than $2.5 billion since it is already building Orion and SLS.

“Being able to fulfill so much of what was laid out in the president’s asteroid goal as well as utilize the systems put in the budget after the president announced the goal was, I think, just a really great strategy that makes a lot of sense,” Garver said. “I am surprised and disappointed that not everyone has seen that. But if you haven’t noticed not everyone really agrees on anything in the space program. But we do have some really key supporters and I can tell you that within NASA this thing has energized the team like nothing I’ve seen since I’ve been here. 

“I got a sense of what it must have felt like to be here back in Apollo,” she said.

Garver bristled a little when asked if affordability is the best thing the Asteroid Retrieval Mission has going for it.

“It’s affordable to just go to L2, if you’re just building SLS and Orion for whenever they can get there” she said, referring to Lagrange 2, a gravitationally stable spot between Earth and the sun previously identified as an initial Orion destination. “So I put more meaning in it than that.”

Article Comments

Awful propaganda hack at an article, Brian. You can do better than this.

Rewriting history by Garver on her way unceremoniously out the door doesn't change that. That commercial space has done well, and that it is becoming the natural spaceflight partner to go to LEO that everyone other than her and this administration knew had to happen, is a happy accident. They would have likely happily blown up commercial space too if it had helped to end the manned program they disliked.

Now she acts like the only champion commercial space has known. What a sick joke. Only those not around to the industry, NASA and human spaceflight workforce to see the truth of it, could believe this load of hogwash. I'd like to think the space media, especially Space News, could report better than this.

Regardless of the money constraints, the Augustine Commission, or any other cold splashes of reality, the truly only logical way to space for humanity is mostly prescribed for us, regardless of the political party or adminstration, or who gets to put their name on it.

The only logical rough order for human presence extension beyond Earth is the one proposed so many times. We have already taken the baby step of "short" visiting to the moon. We won't be "visiting" only ever again--only going to stay. But before that we needed to learn to live and operate in daily space environment, which we are currently doing in ISS in LEO.

With the daily space operations experience in hand, the next logical step is is live a quarter million miles away (only a few days to return) on a permanent moon base. As we learn about longer term exposure and living beyond of radiation belts (countermeasures still need to be fully decided on and developed), we will then hopefully be ready with the type of propulsion that will get us tens of millions of miles away on a human trip to the only other location in the solar system that holds much promise. We likely need to be able to do it in weeks (4-8), not many months, unless new shielding or countermeasures come forward.

I'm not underestimating the costs, nor the political will necessary to bear costs in a shrinking national budget environment we are going to face. But the above order is the only possible one that makes strategic sense to those that understand space. That's way Congress fought back, and fought Lori Garver. They grasp the simple truth of the above, and they didn't want to see taxpayer money wasted--again. If money is delayed, then it will unfortunately happen later rather than sooner. But filling in the interim with asteroid mission(s) is one thing only-a diversion of resources from doing something important and useful.

Sadly, Ms. Garver was never helpful in understanding or explaining the above to this administration. This asteroid mission was and is a boondoggle at best and a foolish waste of resources at a minimum. I suspect even her science community friends telling her this is probably part of why she so suddenly left. Many have long suspected her pushing of this Asteroid plan was to cover over her desire to kill Orion (which you note she and this Administration didn't manage to do) while decimating our human space program's world class work force. That decimation and the laying low of JSC and other human centers is what I suspect will ultimately define her sad legacy in space.

Because my Mother always sad try to say something nice about everyone, her efforts have helped embolden some new commercial entrants that will have a real role in future space. This was going to happen anyway (in fact was on track even back to the Bush Admin--they knew there wasn't enough money for everything in the Vision without commercial space in the mix), but Ms. Garver used the false pitting of commercial versus established space as a way to decimate human space efforts and kill the Vision, Though no one knows why for certain, the Vision certainly didn't have this administration's name on it, and all politicians do sadly like their name on plaques. Sadly, that story isn't terribly unusual for NASA either, though they used the Augustine conclusions about money as cover to kill the only nicely logical progression of humans into space.

So though it came from an ignoble purpose to start with, the promotion of commercial space has been a good one, and one many of us have sought out for a long time. The Douglas's, Boeing's, Marietta's, and Lockheed's of the dawning (commercial) space age are being born now, and we will have seen them from their humble beginnings. And the established providers will have a thing to two to say about that future as well, as they transition from being a govt. only contractor to a resource\provider to a new wider audience of clientele. And as prices go down, we will finally see just how elastic that discussed commercial market for space truly is.

If only we former govt. contractor workers can manage to live through this horrendously grinding transition to whatever the sausage looks like when it comes out the other side, we may all look back on this as having been a pretty wide open, barnstorming side of new space era that is being born. Just paying the bills till then will be the challenge for so many.

Good bye Ms. Garver. I, like many other who have been harmed by you, wonder how you will ultimately be remembered...I'm guessing it won't be fondly.

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