Escaping Gravity and the struggle to reshape NASA

by

On Sept. 16, 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket ascended into space with a crew capsule atop it, carrying four private citizens—two men and two women. It was the first orbital spaceflight in history without a government employee aboard. More recently, in April of 2022, another milestone was achieved, with the first fully private flight to the International Space Station, in which the four-man crew performed research there for more than two weeks before returning to Earth.

These events were the culmination of an effort that had started more than a decade earlier, in which NASA had started to fund two private American companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to develop commercial orbital crew transportation systems to end our dependence on Russia for rides to the ISS that had begun when the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. While it is now clearly viewed as a success, the move was very controversial and, for many, politically unpopular at the time. It happened against great resistance both by people within the space agency and on Capitol Hill, and it happened because one strong-willed and visionary woman pushed it through regardless. That woman was Lori Garver, then deputy administrator of NASA (and only the second woman to have that role), and she has now written a book about it, Escaping Gravity. It describes not just that history but the problems with NASA’s dysfunctional human spaceflight program in general.

The book is an autobiography but it contains significant detail about the inner workings of the space agency, the interplay between it and Congress and the White House, and the culture during her tenure at NASA. Those space-policy analysts (such as myself) who were following the topic could infer much of what was happening behind the scenes at the time, but in her book Garver makes the political machinations quite explicit. They include graphic descriptions of the misogynistic verbal abuse, including death threats, she endured in her fight to get space policies that made sense for the taxpayer and space enthusiasts, rather than for the contractors, their lobbyists, and those congresspeople on the Hill running the space committees.

She was in a unique position to change the direction of the agency because she was the first person at that management level to have had her roots not in the traditional space industry but rather in the space advocacy community. She first came to NASA in the 1990s as the former executive director of the National Space Society, a nonprofit organization whose members were not necessarily space professionals, but any citizen interested in seeing progress in space (from any country—the “National” in its name is a misnomer, as it is an international organization). The organization had resulted from a merger in the 1980s between the National Space Institute (NSI) and the L-5 Society. The former had been founded by Wernher von Braun to support a continuation of traditional NASA activities and budgets beyond Apollo, and the latter was a group of citizens interested in promoting the late Professor Gerard O’Neill’s concepts of space settlements.

Many prominent members of that latter group (including, probably, myself; in disclosure, I have known her personally since the mid-1980s) became what Garver (affectionately) refers to in the book as “space pirates,” a group on whom she would later rely for advice and fact-checking in going up against the spaceflight industrial complex. In fact, after the merger, some of the previous L-5ers, frustrated that the organization seemed to have become more the NASA-cheerleading NSI than an organization focused first and foremost on expanding humanity into space, formed a new organization called the Space Frontier Foundation to focus more on that. For those remaining in NSS, as the second leader of the merged organization for several years, Garver had to manage the tensions between the two communities within it, but this, along with her graduate degree in technical and public policy, probably gave her a good grounding and experience for the battles to come when she later became second-in-command at NASA.

As discussed in an essay I wrote shortly after that period, when she ascended to her position at the agency in 2009, the Obama Administration had inherited a space-policy mess from the George W. Bush administration in the form of a program called Constellation. It was previous administrator Mike Griffin’s concept for fulfilling the Bush goal of returning to the Moon to stay. Griffin himself had characterized it when he announced it as “Apollo on steroids.” It consisted of a new rocket for delivering crew (to partially replace the functionality of the retiring Space Shuttle), a heavy-lift rocket akin to the Saturn V, a crew capsule similar to that of Apollo, but larger, and a lunar lander. Only the crew rocket and capsule were in active development at the time, and they were well over budget and slipping more than a year per year in schedule.

The new administration assembled a commission led by industry executive Norm Augustine to assess the situation, which came back with the message that NASA either had to rein in its ambitions for human spaceflight or get much more money than Congress was likely to grant it. But replacing the shuttle, whose final flight was delayed a year beyond the Bush plan of 2010 to allow it to complete the ISS, was becoming urgent, and the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule offered little prospect of doing so quickly. SpaceX was showing promise in its development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule under the commercial cargo program, and Garver had met Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell earlier in the decade as the fledgling company was starting to spread its wings. The Bush Administration had had a plan to extend the cargo program to crew, under a program called “Capability D,” and Garver’s people got it started using some of the stimulus funding that the Obama Administration had crammed through Congress in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008.

Next came the battle to keep the new commercial crew program funded. Garver’s team had to fight within NASA, against powerful supporters, to fund it, while also canceling Constellation, but they got little support from the White House:

The new program was mostly being criticized because it competed against Ares and Orion, which were feeding off of traditional cost-plus contracts to the tune of $3 to 4 billion a year whether they flew or not. The benefits of Commercial Crew, the source of criticism against it, and the exorbitant costs of the status quo were parts of the messaging I thought needed to be emphasized beyond the space community. White House legislative affairs officials were focused on other priority initiatives and appeared reluctant to engage on NASA’s issues. I tried to communicate with NASA’s employees, contractors, the media, and aerospace associations about the strengths and long-term benefits of our plan. It seemed to have little positive effect. Without top cover from the White House, and being muzzled on why Constellation was being canceled, we dug a very big hole for ourselves. Constellation’s industry partners and congressional stakeholders smelled blood in the water and joined forces against us. In hearing after hearing, as the administration and the plan were berated, we never offered much of a compelling defense.

The increased cost, risk, and schedule delays of the Ares I rocket made it the most vulnerable element of the Constellation program. The contract had been sole-sourced to ATK Space Systems—a Utah-based contractor supplying virtually the same solid rocket motors for the Shuttle. Ares I was known as the “Scotty Rocket” after former astronaut Scott Horowitz, who had designed it when he returned to NASA after working for ATK —an arrangement that any impartial Inspector General would have likely investigated. The Ares I was supposed to serve as a precursor to a larger rocket that NASA, industry, and the Hill really wanted to build, known as the Ares V. [Emphasis added]

It’s worth noting that the revolving door between NASA and ATK by Horowitz should have been investigated not just by the NASA IG, but by the media. I had heard at the time that someone at the Wall Street Journal had been working on a story about it, but for some reason, it never ran. The only places where one heard complaints about this seeming corruption were NASA Watch, and my and other space blogs at the time.

One of the biggest opponents of both Commercial Crew and ending Constellation was then-Senator Bill Nelson, of Florida, who had been instrumental in getting the visionless Charles Bolden (with whom he had flown on the shuttle in 1986) appointed to head the agency as Garver’s boss. Garver relates that

…in one particularly uncomfortable one-on-one meeting in his Senate hideaway, he aimed the intensity of his ire in my direction. In response to public comments Elon Musk had made about SpaceX’s ability to improve on NASA’s existing programs, Bill Nelson shouted at me to “get your boy Elon in line.” Given how much the Florida space coast stood to benefit from the proposal’s infrastructure investments and development of a robust commercial launch industry, his lack of support was especially disappointing.

It’s ironic to note that now that Nelson is himself NASA administrator, he seems to have had a change of heart, in that he now understands that SpaceX and commercial activities are crucial to NASA moving forward. In recent testimony to Congress, he characterized cost-plus contracts, by which the Space Launch System (the successor to the Ares V rocket that he initiated with Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010) and Orion have been funded, as a “plague” on the agency.

She describes some of the duplicity by which the bloated program was sold:

Key NASA and Senate leaders commonly used launching NRO satellites as a justification to build the SLS, so I wanted to run the question to ground. I’d raised the same issue of SLS use in NASA’s quarterly meetings at the Pentagon. The Air Force, Space Command, and Strategic Command had universally and defiantly said “no, thank you”—without the thank you. Charlie, Chris [Scolese], and others conveniently ignored these discussions and continued to include launch of military and intelligence satellites in their talking points to justify SLS.

When I asked NRO if they had any interest in using the vehicle, their response was immediate and unanimous: no. NRO deputy Betty Sapp offered a reason for their quick response—their satellites had precision instruments that could not withstand the dynamic environment of launching on large solid rocket motors. There it was: the very element of the rocket being forced on NASA by congressional leaders, people doing the bidding for self-interested contractors, had limited the types of payloads that could be launched on the vehicle.

She also had to deal with a mentality that it was all right to waste taxpayers’ money for political ends:

I visited the Lockheed Martin facilities where the Orion capsule was being built several times and never saw anyone actually working on the spacecraft. Their message on my tours focused on how many different states had participated in providing parts or testing. During one visit to their Denver facility, the spacecraft had just returned from Ohio, where it had undergone a test they were now repeating. When I asked why they were doing the same test again, they said it was to assure nothing had loosened up in shipping. This made sense, and led me to ask why we had shipped it to Ohio in the first place. The senior executive leading my tour elbowed me and winked, saying they were doing their part to get the Ohio delegation onboard. As politely as possible, I suggested they should focus on building the spacecraft efficiently and leave the politicking to others.

She didn’t just have to battle the bureaucracy and the contractors, but misguided national heroes:

In addition to the Apollo astronauts who testified against Obama’s budget, active astronauts were openly derisive of the Commercial Crew concept and the recently announced asteroid destination. I made a point to meet with the current corps during one of my visits to JSC. I was disappointed by the low level of interest. The astronauts who did agree to meet appeared openly hostile toward the administration’s plan and to me personally.

She was fighting on three fronts. First, anyone attempting to be a change agent on the scale she was would be up against powerful snouts in the federal trough whose (to mix a metaphor) golden rice bowls were at risk of being broken. Second, she was battling the Apolloistic religion, in the view of which only NASA could lead the way beyond low Earth orbit, and that it must do so with its own giant rockets, regardless of how long it took, or how much it cost the taxpayer. But in her particular case, she was also fighting an old boys club, industry veterans who disrespected her both because she didn’t have an engineering background, and because she was a woman doing a “man’s job,” resulting in many instances she describes clearly as misogyny, from her colleagues, contractors, and congressional staff. As a veteran in the industry myself, sadly, I find it completely believable. She describes a conversation in the midst of the battle:

As we left the Cape, Rob [Nabors, White House liaison to the Hill] was as upset as I’d ever seen him. He told me that for my own sanity, I should get out of the aerospace field. He said, ‘None of these people care about the actual space program; they are vipers and NASA is a viper pit.’ I’d been inoculated through years of absorbing venom, but I understood his frustration.

She is justly harsh in her criticism of the political culture, in DC in general, but particularly when it comes to NASA expenditures, with her own take on Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power corrupts:

To me, there is no worse crime for a government employee than to use the public’s money for his or her own purposes. It goes against a political scientist’s laws of nature. I found it far too common for Agency employees to act entitled when deciding how tax dollars should be spent…

Government service requires integrity and many of the behaviors I saw, in my view, should not have been tolerated. Others had a different level of tolerance, which perpetuated the behavior. Even when reported through established channels, the issues were rarely acknowledged or corrected. Escaping the trappings of power is sometimes harder than escaping gravity.

But she also recognizes that it is the incentives of the system that are at fault:

[Those] working against what I thought were needed reforms are not bad people. In my view, they are products of a system where their professional status led them to assume privilege. The halls of power were filled with others who looked and acted like them, which reinforced their beliefs and behavior. To a person, they have made many positive contributions to the nation and space program throughout their careers. My retellings of our interactions are not meant to reflect negatively on their intentions or their other accomplishments. Marrying colleagues’ positive reputations and numerous good-hearted deeds with what I came to experience was confounding. I air what I saw as misdeeds not out of spite but with a belief that sunlight can be a powerful disinfectant.

My primary criticism of the book is in its structure: as its title would suggest, it is organized around the theme of “gravity,” in three sections, and I found the theme forced, resulting in redundancy, in which some of the same anecdotes are related in different contexts, and jumping back and forth in time. I think a more biographical linear telling would have made for a tighter story. Non-Democrats may be put off by some of her political views, particularly on climate, but neither of these issues should dissuade them from reading this important book, a take from the inside of the industry on the making of foul sausage that historians of spaceflight will find invaluable.

 

Escaping Gravity on Amazon


Rand Simberg is an aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and consultant in space commercialization, regulation, and business development. He is the author of Safe Is Not an Option: Overcoming the Futile Obsession with ‘Getting Everyone Back Alive’ That Is Killing Our Expansion into Space (2013). He has a blog at transterrestrial.com. He has known Lori Garver personally for decades.

This article was first published June 27, 2022, on The Space Review.