Since the glory days of Apollo, NASA’s human spaceflight program has seen its share of mission myopia, particularly when it comes to finding the political will and funding to send astronauts into the sky. beyond low Earth orbit.
But in a revealing new book, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver doesn’t shy away from recounting her battles with NASA’s old guard at the dawn of the new space revolution. Garver’s tenure as deputy administrator coincided with the first term of President Barack Obama’s administration.
His book, “Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age,” wastes no time detailing how difficult it can be to change national space policy at the highest levels of government. Garver spends much of his book describing how entrenched political and aerospace interests were more than reluctant to embrace any change they saw as a threat to their own hegemony.
What was the most frustrating thing about working for NASA?
“In management, there was an interest in mostly redoing things we had done in the past and a reluctance to embrace outside ideas and outside team members,” Garver told me in an interview. phone this week.
In 1996, when I first went to NASA at age 35, I worked there for five years for NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, Garver says. Goldin appreciated my original thinking, but a lot of people around him didn’t, she says. Then in 2009, when I returned almost eight years later as Deputy Administrator under NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, there was a similar problem.
During the post-Apollo era, one of NASA’s stated goals was to develop an entirely new, cheaper, and more common way to access low Earth orbit. This was the main objective of the space shuttle program. But “the 6 billion dollars initially estimated by NASA [shuttle] the cost of development quadrupled and by the mid-1980s it was obvious to anyone paying attention that it was never going to deliver on its promise,” Garver writes in “Escaping Gravity.”
What about those who argue that robotic exploration, rather than human spaceflight, is the way forward?
These questions arise because since Apollo, we haven’t done a great job of articulating and leading to a why and a purpose for human 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, says Garver.
In the Obama administration, we have set goals for reducing the cost of space travel and investing in future sustainable technologies, Garver explains.
But NASA grew up on Apollo and likes to do big things, Garver says. There’s a lot of big infrastructure to fill and a lot of mouths to feed, she says. And congressional districts determine how those programs are created, Garver notes.
“It’s not the most efficient way to have a space program,” Garver said.
If we had 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, Garver says. So, to justify the shuttle, we said that we needed a space station, she said. The space station was to allow us to have regular operations in space; create miracle drugs; develop trade in space; and pump huge sums of money back into our economy, she notes.
“But that hasn’t worked yet either,” Garver said.
Yet in 1996, during the second term of the Clinton administration, Goldin launched a major competition for government-industry partnerships called the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program, Garver writes. Although this 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 the VentureStar. The idea was that VentureStar could be reused in days, not months, which would significantly reduce the costs of putting a pound of payload into orbit – by $10,000 to $1,000.
The X-33/VentureStar initiative was a public-private partnership between Lockheed Martin and NASA, Garver notes in his book. But when the X-33 ran into technical difficulties, the program was simply halted, she writes. “The X-33/VentureStar program never came close to being launched,” writes Garver.
But arguably, it marked the start of a new era at NASA that would eventually lead to the kind of public-private cooperation that is the hallmark of the new space economy.
“So, now we’re going back to the Moon,” Garver said.
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 said.
“We won that,” Garver said. “There is value in sending humans into space; but that value must be articulated in such a way that its purpose determines how we proceed.
NASA’s Artemis program plans to land two astronauts at the lunar south pole by 2025. But the program is still not fully funded, Garver notes in his book. So, 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’s not currently doing?
NASA could play a bigger role in driving the technologies needed for human spaceflight in deep space, Garver said. The long tent pole that people don’t talk too much about is human survivability in these environments, she says.
In other words, how our physiology will change in deep space.
NASA has done some of this research but needs to lead it because it’s something that will be difficult for the private sector to do, Garver says.
As for the structural changes NASA should make in the future?
NASA is oversized for current tasks, Garver says. For example, 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 it does for politics. The people who write about space exploration are mostly cheerleaders for the cause, rather than independent observers monitoring how our national funds are spent.
Yet ultimately, “Escaping Gravity” offers a refreshing and rare inside look at the inner workings of how American space policy is actually crafted. Unfortunately, we fall far behind the hopes 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.