New book paints a bleak picture of NASA’s human spaceflight program

Since the glory days of Apollo, NASA’s human spaceflight program has seen its share of mission myopia, particularly in finding the political will and funding to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.

But in a revealing new book, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver doesn’t mince words as she recounts her battles with NASA’s old guard on the cusp of the new space revolution. Garver’s tenure as deputy administrator coincided with the first term of President Barack Obama’s administration and was plagued by controversies between conventional NASA policymakers and Garver’s own desire to embrace and partner with new space upstarts such as SpaceX. by Elon Musk.

His book, “Escape 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 aerospace and political interests were more than reluctant to accept any change they saw as a threat to their own hegemony.

What was the most frustrating thing about working for NASA?

“In leadership, there was an interest primarily in redoing things that we had done in the past and a reluctance to embrace outside ideas and outside team members,” Garver told me in a phone interview this week.

In 1996, when I first went to NASA at age 35, I was there for five years working for NASA administrator Dan Goldin, says Garver. Goldin appreciated my innovative thinking, but many people around him didn’t, she says. Then in 2009, when I returned almost eight years later as deputy administrator for 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, lower cost, and more routine way of accessing low Earth orbit. That was the main goal of the space shuttle program. But “NASA’s initial estimated $6 billion budget [shuttle] the development cost quadrupled, and by the mid-1980s it was obvious to anyone paying attention that it would never 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 directing a why and purpose for human spaceflight, says Garver. With Apollo, that purpose was crystal 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 set goals to reduce the cost of space transportation and invest in future sustainable technologies, says Garver.

But NASA grew up on Apollo and likes to do big things, says Garver. It has a lot of big infrastructure to fill and a lot of mouths to feed, she says. And constituencies are driving how these programs are created, Garver says.

“That’s not the most efficient way to have a space program,” Garver said.

If we had achieved the Space Shuttle’s goal of cutting costs and making access to space routine and affordable, we’d be in a different place today, says Garver. So to justify the shuttle, we said we needed a space station, she says. The space station was to ensure that we could have regular operations in space; create miracle drugs; expand trade into space; and put huge sums of money back into our economy, she says.

“But that didn’t work yet either,” Garver said.

However, in 1996, during the second term of the Clinton administration, Goldin had started a major competition for government-industry partnerships called the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program, Garver writes. Although that 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 the VentureStar could be reused again in days, not months, which would dramatically reduce the costs of putting a pound of payload into orbit: from $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 problems, the program was simply cancelled, he writes. “The X-33/VentureStar program never came close to being launched,” Garver writes.

But it arguably ushered in a new era at NASA, one that would eventually lead to the kind of public-private cooperation that is a hallmark of the new space economy.

“So now we’re going to go back to the Moon,” Garver said.

Current NASA administrator Bill Nelson says it’s to beat China to the Moon, Garver notes. But we have sent humans to the Moon six times, she says.

“We won that,” Garver said. “There is value in sending humans into space; but that value must be articulated in a way that its purpose drives the way we do it.”

NASA’s Artemis program calls for two astronauts to land at the lunar South Pole by 2025. But the program is not yet 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 larger role in driving the technologies needed for human spaceflight in deep space, says Garver. The long tent pole that people don’t talk about too much is human survivability in these environments, she says.

That is, how our physiology will change in deep space.

NASA has done some of that research, but it needs to lead because that’s something that’s going to be hard for the private sector to do, says Garver.

As for the structural changes that NASA should make in the future?

NASA is overburdened for current tasks, says Garver. For example, he 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 they reserve for politics. People who write about space exploration are mostly cheerleaders for the cause, rather than independent observers watching how our national funds are spent.

In the end, though, “Escaping Gravity” offers a refreshingly candid and rare inside look at the inner workings of how US space policy is really made. 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 collides with reality.

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