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

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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. 

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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.”