Op-Ed | Transition Fever


This piece originally appeared as a First Person column in the April 11 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Lori Garver led the NASA transition team for the incoming Obama administration in 2008-2009 and served as NASA deputy administrator from 2009-2013. She currently is the general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Every four years the space community gears up for potential changes in administration — assured this time around as President Obama finishes his last year — and the impact a White House transition will have on NASA. And it sure seems like there is a lot more talk among the civil space community this round than usual about the upcoming NASA transition. My phone has been lighting up nonstop and my “dance card” has been filling up from long-lost friends with requests lately, even though my day job has been managing an airline pilots union for the last two and a half years. Everyone wants to re-hash what happened eight years ago, many with hopes to avoid a similar transition in the future. There have been congressional hearings, draft legislation and industry-led coalition pronouncements, all focused on ensuring that the next President doesn’t touch a hair on the head of the current path or programs at NASA. As you can imagine, I do have some thoughts on the matter.

The peaceful transition of power is something we shouldn’t take for granted. I am privileged to have been part of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 2001 departure and President Barack Obama’s 2009 arrival. As an Executive Branch government agency, NASA’s policy leaders are selected by and report to the president and are initially advised by a small agency transition team who arrive the day after the election and serve until noon on Jan. 20. The team’s primary role is to gather all the information possible to best advise the incoming president, domestic and foreign policy advisers, and the agency’s newly appointed (or soon to be) leadership.

U.S. President Barack Obama views a prototype NASA rover during a parade marking his 2009 inauguration. Credit: NASA
U.S. President Barack Obama views a prototype NASA rover during a parade marking his 2009 inauguration. Credit: NASA

Having advised Hillary Clinton on space policy during most of the 2008 campaign, my ties to the Obama team were not deep. When I got the call in July asking me to lead the NASA transition for a potential Obama administration, I was honored and surprised. I was an aerospace consultant at the time and was told I needed to immediately eliminate any potential conflicts (read: drop the clients) and commit to extend that hiatus through Jan. 20 if he were elected. I was told to recruit three to four additional members for the team – asking them to make the same ethics pledge. I immediately turned to George Whitesides, Alan Ladwig and Ed Heffernan – all former colleagues with a breadth and depth of experience in NASA issues.

Following the election, both the best and worst of NASA were on display in the 2008 transition. The transition leads had offices in the “transition White House” — a GSA-provided office space in downtown Washington — but our primary work was done at NASA Headquarters. The four of us arrived at 300 E Street SW on Nov. 6 and were welcomed to a well-appointed suite, meeting all our specified security needs and more. Individual offices, conference facilities, state-of -the-art IT infrastructure and an operational team to service our every need (they even brought us a refrigerator when they saw we worked through lunch and late into the evening).

Back at the transition headquarters, I would compare notes with the other agency leads and was the envy of all – most had been stuck somewhere off in an empty closet at their respective agencies. We doubled up in the transition office, since most of us were never there. Our “wing” included the “STARS” – the science, technology and arts agencies. Tom Wheeler, now chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, led our team. I shared an office with the transition lead for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the National Science Foundation and NOAA on either side. We delivered weekly reports to Tom, who gathered them for John Podesta, the co-chair of Obama’s transition team, and Rahm Emanuel, who would stay on as Obama’s White House chief of staff. The science and technology transition leads worked together closely.

During my discussions with then-U.S.Sen. Obama before the election, he had conveyed his personal excitement and support for NASA. He, like me, had grown up in the space age and considered our space achievements to be America at her best. He expressed concern that NASA was spread too thin. It seemed to him like we hadn’t made enough progress since Apollo and he wanted NASA to invest in programs that would drive technology and allow for greater advancements in the future. This theme was consistent for all the science and technology agency transitions.  Our guidance was clear – focus public investments wisely on innovative technologies and programs that would fuel economic growth and stimulate greater scientific knowledge.

A NASA internal transition team had prepared numerous transition books filled with information about programs, projects, budgets, etc. We divided up responsibilities and poured through the documents that would inform our reports. We highlighted issues that would need to be handled in the first 100 days, first year and first term. We met with more than 100 people inside and outside the agency during this time.

While human spaceflight often drives the debate in the space community, we delved into all mission areas equally – trying to ensure that the incoming leadership team would have the most complete picture of the state of the agency as possible. Nearly everyone at NASA was extremely helpful.

There were a few exceptions to our warm NASA welcome … and they were on the 9th floor. Everyone was hoping for a peaceful transition of power at NASA much like happens at our country’s highest level. I remember Dan Goldin working with Courtney Stadd (President-elect Bush’s NASA transition lead) almost daily following the 2000 election. The outcome of that election wasn’t confirmed by the Supreme Court until mid-December, so there was a lot of work to do in a condensed period of time. Even with these heightened political tensions, the outgoing Clinton and incoming Bush political teams worked together closely.

Unfortunately, the 2008 transition would be different. Despite the chilly reception on the 9th floor, we kept shoulder to the wheel gathering information and writing our reports. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released two months before the 2008 election highlighted the shuttle-to-Constellation transition as a top challenge, so we were asked to focus on human spaceflight specifically. This was made more difficult when the Constellation team was the only program unwilling to share detailed information. The Ares launch vehicle team came up from Huntsville and brought a slickly produced video to describe their program. The Orion team from Houston was only slightly more informative. I had sought the counsel of Sally Ride, who led Bill Clinton’s NASA transition in 1992, and she mentioned that the Aerospace Corp. was working on an analysis of the Ares program and she helped arrange for us to get a briefing from them. After a 20-minutes introductory briefing on the Aerospace Corp., our briefers concluded without sharing any details from their Ares study. Our detailed questions were met with nervousness and little eye contact. We later learned that NASA leadership had heard about our planned meeting and preemptively told them not to share the Ares results with us.

Why is any of this relevant now? Well, there will be a transition team at NASA seven months from now. Their charge will be to learn everything they can about key NASA programs to advise the incoming president and her or his new leadership team. Any innovative organization should relish the chance for a fresh look with fresh eyes — the transition should be viewed as an opportunity, not a challenge. NASA can only benefit from working openly with this team – no matter which candidate wins come November. Political transitions are part of our great democratic history and should be embraced – not feared.

Lori Garver, then NASA's deputy administrator Lori Garver (center) shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama as she and NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana (left) welcome Obama to Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on April 15, 2010. Credit: Bill Ingalls
Lori Garver, then NASA’s deputy administrator (center) shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama as she and NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana (left) welcome Obama to Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on April 15, 2010. Credit: Bill Ingalls

New administrations are a time of incredible opportunity. Before we arrived, NASA’s human spaceflight program was on an unsustainable course. The space shuttle was to be retired without delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer or carrying out a critically important additional servicing mission to the International Space Station. The first flight of Orion and its Ares1 launcher was targeted for 2017 – but the ISS would have been de-orbited in 2015, so it would have had nowhere to go. No budget was available for heavy lift or the lunar lander until after ISS had been deorbited. NASA had eliminated nearly all funding for technology and cut back significantly on aeronautics and Earth sciences in order to pay for Constellation.

By working closely with the White House Office of Management and Budget, we were able to craft a program and budget that extended the shuttle for two additional flights, extended ISS until 2020, accelerated commercial cargo and initiated commercial crew, re-established a technology budget with its own office, and increased the budget for aeronautics and Earth sciences. Our early work on the 2009 stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, brought an additional $1 billion to NASA – funding aeronautics, Earth Sciences, and James Webb Space Telescope overruns. The stimulus also included $300 million to fund an accelerated commercial crew program called COTS D, but after I left the transition offices on Jan. 20, and before I got back to NASA in July, the acting administrator had redirected that funding to Constellation. That funding would likely have allowed a commercial provider to transport crew to ISS by now; instead it funded the Constellation program for less than a month.

The bottom line is that we in the space community can’t have it both ways. We can’t take the public’s money, but then not allow the leaders they elect to have any say about NASA’s direction. While the multi-year process of getting both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to agree on NASA programs and budgets may be frustrating, that is the “price” we pay for spending public tax dollars. These inherent challenges are part of why I believe we should do everything possible to incentivize the private sector to do more.

President Obama’s first NASA budget requested $19 billion for NASA and $6 billion in increases over five years. But the “power of the purse” rests with Congress and they did not support his approach. I have no doubt he (and OMB) would have continued to request those increased budgets for NASA had his approach been accepted by Congress. If we follow the path many have suggested and limit the influence of future presidents over NASA and its leadership, we are likely to see less support for the agency, not more. It would also embolden those who want less of a sustainable strategic space program in favor of parochial pet projects. NASA stands to benefit greatly from the energy of a new presidency and should be preparing to welcome the transition team with open arms – and open books.

NASA programs that are on track, on budget and providing great value are very likely to continue to be supported. But as I said to Mike Griffin in late 2008, you are asking us to buy a car without looking under the hood. That posture in 2008 led us to initiate the Augustine Committee, which confirmed Constellation was unsustainable.

NASA should prop open the hood and let the new team take a look — not require a presidentially appointed, independent commission to pry it open. If the engine is running smoothly, there are no leaks and we have a full tank of gas, there shouldn’t be anything to fear. Leading the NASA transition team was the most challenging, intense and rewarding undertaking of my career — most likely a once in a lifetime experience.