Shortly after being sworn in as NASA administrator last July, Charles Bolden said he would be relying heavily on his deputy, Lori Garver, who was sworn in alongside him, to help pilot the U.S. space agency through the shark-infested waters of Washington politics.

“We make a great team,” Bolden told NASA employees during his first all-hands meeting. “She knows a lot of policy. I know none. She knows Washington. I know a little.”

Garver, a longtime space policy wonk who advised then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama on civil space matters during his successful 2008 campaign for president, now has the unenviable task of selling Obama’s controversial new direction for NASA’s human spaceflight program — which would cancel the Moon-bound Constellation program — to a highly skeptical Congress. As such, she has become a lightning rod for critics of the plan.

“We recognize that change is hard,” Garver told Space News deputy editor Brian Berger. “It’s obviously a difficult challenge when we’re in a position [where] Constellation is going forward and … new programs cannot start. So we’re trying to put as much definition as we can to a new program, recognizing that you can’t actually start it.”

Is NASA willing to put Europe on the so-called critical path to space exploration missions?

It’s just strange for us to say we wouldn’t have non-U.S. participants on a critical path when in fact the very plan we are currently under has us counting on the Russians for our space transportation for crew and cargo. So while we may have said we wouldn’t put partners on the critical path, we clearly had them there. Are we more interested than the last administration in having critical needs carried out by our international partners? Yes. We are recognizing the situation we are in. Space is a global endeavor. We have hundreds of partnerships around the world. Space transportation is an area we are proposing to manage in a commercial way, so that would keep that in the U.S. People who don’t agree with our plan have been saying the U.S. won’t have any capability whereas we really believe we’re putting U.S. capability back in the space transportation arena by our proposals to seriously fund commercial cargo and crew.

Could you identify one or two possible contributions by international partners to NASA’s proposed exploration program?

We have not given up on the Moon as a destination. The Germans, for example, are very interested in a robotic mission to the Moon. That could be one of our precursor or flagship programs. In addition, there are plans to cooperate with the French on a Mars robotic mission that could include future sample return. So we really believe one of the benefits of flexible path is the way you can partner with the international community because we don’t have to take the lead in everything. We could put an instrument on a mission that others have, and that is something that we will look to be doing as we go forward.

What do you think are the odds that Congress will pass a NASA budget this year?

The chances of there being a continuing resolution for a few months are quite high. But we believe the Congress will get a budget enacted, and we hope that by then we will have been able to explain our program well enough that we’re going forward in a way that is very positive for the future of human spaceflight and for NASA.

A very unique aspect of what is going on now with this debate is that we are arguing over the best way to have the most robust human space exploration plan. And I recall a time in the 1990s when that was not the debate. You’re not seeing anyone argue we shouldn’t be going beyond low Earth orbit or we shouldn’t be expanding space station or we shouldn’t even be having the private sector work more effectively with government. It’s a very difficult thing canceling a large program, and I do want to add the caveat that we are not proposing at this time to cancel all of Constellation. We have, as you know, amended the program as of April 15 and are looking to modify the Orion spacecraft to be an escape vehicle for space station.

What’s the programmatic rationale for an escape-only version of Orion?

We believe it is aligned with our capabilities-driven budget. A couple of the flagships — certainly the early ones — were things that could have technologies like we will be developing on a crew-escape version of Orion, if we’re allowed to do that. We also feel that the commercial companies, to give them the best chance at success, need to focus on those things that there are future markets for. And the future markets are for transportation. It’s a government-unique requirement for station keeping. If we’re able to cover those requirements with the escape vehicle, then the commercial companies don’t need to include that in their work. So it could allow an acceleration of the commercial capabilities.

When you say station keeping, are you talking about using the Orion lifeboat to periodically re-boost the space station?

Well, station keeping could mean a lot of things. Certainly the need to be there full time to provide emergency crew escape is not something that would be required of the commercial providers. We have heard from various providers who felt it was an added capability that they would not be developing for other customers.

How does NASA prevent a government-funded Orion from threatening commercial crew transport bidders?

These are all issues that we are working towards given that it’s still a new concept. We recognize that different industries have different takes on this, where you stand depends on where you sit. We have to work through the very best way to do that, that isn’t favoring one particular company over another.

Plans call for NASA to settle on a heavy-lift rocket design by 2015. Does NASA truly expect new technologies to emerge by then, or is that date budget driven?

It is not entirely budget driven. There are capabilities that we really feel a need to demonstrate that could reduce the amount that you would need to lift for some of these beyond low Earth orbit missions. Propellant depots, inflatables, aerocapture at Mars — these are not unobtainable technologies. These are the things NASA has worked on over time and we are ready to do demonstrators. We have them in the budget, along with a couple of billion dollars for heavy-lift technology, for developing a liquid engine to be able to compete favorably with the Russian engines. These are the underpinnings of this capabilities-driven budget proposal.

Developing our own engine capability is something the military has tried to get funded for over a decade. They’ve told us they really feel strongly that needs to be done. At the same time, we’re sizing a vehicle that can be built in less than 20 years and for less than $60 billion.

So we really believe if we invest in these technologies and size of vehicle and have an indigenous engine capability, we could really get to an asteroid faster than we would have been able to if we were deciding now on building a very large vehicle.

How closely will NASA work with the U.S. Air Force on the new engine, and do you envision the service contributing funding?

It’s very interesting to me that it’s NASA that has been given the budget to do this, but we plan to work with them closely should we be allowed to proceed. We’re also working with them closely on getting infrastructure costs and operating costs down so we can actually compete internationally for commercial launches.

Members of Congress are concerned that we don’t get behind, and we are too. We believe this is the way to keep the United States pushing not only space exploration … beyond low Earth orbit but our whole space infrastructure; our whole space business is something that we feel so strongly about. The president made these hard choices recognizing that it mattered. We know that change is hard, but these are the kinds of things that we think are important enough to get back so we can continue to be the leaders in this country.

NASA started several launcher technology programs during the 1990s that were never completed, the Space Launch Initiative (SLI) being an example. How is NASA’s new technology-driven plan going to succeed when the same approach failed a decade ago?

Well, let’s talk about that. It is really not the same approach. If you look, for instance, at the SLI budget, I think it was a couple hundred million dollars. It was not the $6 billion for commercial crew, over $2 billion for heavy-lift engine development, almost $2 billion for a 21st-century space launch capability at the Cape. Look at X-33: We were going to spend $1 billion to develop a single-stage fully reusable vehicle and count on our private sector partner to add another $1 billion. We are proposing $6 billion to take existing vehicles, put capsules on them with escape towers and fly them, something we did in the 1960s for less money and less time. So we truly believe this is not the same. We are serious about it. Those previous efforts counted on markets well beyond NASA. Not only are we going to provide a larger investment but we’re providing the market as well by extending space station operations. So we’re buying down the risks, not just at the market level but also the technical level because we’re not asking you to do a single-stage fully reusable vehicle for a sixth of what we propose to spend on commercial crew. It’s just really not comparable.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...