Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Heel Turn

Elon Musk with Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, December 18 at the World Cup in Qatar. Original image source: David Niviere/ABACA/INSTARimages via Daily Mail.

In professional wrestling, one of the oldest ways to renew audience interest in a wrestler's “gimmick” is to have the wrestler turn heel.

Wrestling matches are a simple morality tale, good versus evil. The good guy is called the “face” while the bad guy is called the “heel.”

We go to the movies, attend a play, watch a wrestling show because we want to root for the good guy and boo the bad guy. Very few tales end with the protagonist losing to the antagonist. While those stories might be more complex and sophisticated, typically they don't do very well at the box office.

A gimmick can turn stale after a while, so the typical way to freshen a character is a “turn.” A “heel turn” means a good guy turns bad. A “face turn” means a bad guy turns good.

And yet there's a certain charm to having a really good villain.

When I saw Star Wars in 1977 for the first time, it had been out for a couple weeks. It was all the rage on college campuses. I had no clue, but my friends insisted I had to go with them to see it. Off we went, standing in a line that wrapped around the theater. We sat in the last available seats, which were in the front row. That opening narrative crawl began, then the Tantive IV raced over our heads, followed by Darth Vader's massive star cruiser. After the Rebel ship was boarded, Vader entered, wearing black amid all that white. (The bad guy wears the black hat.) To my perplexity, the audience began throwing popcorn bags and soft drinks at the screen!

I thought, “What did this guy do?!”

After we hated Darth Vader for six years, he redeemed himself in Return of the Jedi by — spoiler alert! — saving his son, Luke Skywalker. In pro wrestling terms, Vader did a face turn.

Hulk Hogan's heel turn at Bash at the Beach, July 7, 1996. Video source: WWE YouTube channel.

The best heel turn in pro wrestling history, arguably, is Hulk Hogan in 1996. Hogan had been the #1 “face” for the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) in the 1980s. His catch phrase was to advise children to “say your prayers and take your vitamins.” But by the early 1990s, the gimmick had gone stale, his character always performing the same limited number of moves. Hogan left the WWF for a year in Japan, where he could do more than a leg drop. In 1994, Hogan signed with World Championship Wrestling, a southern promotion owned by billionaire Ted Turner. Hogan did his same prayers-and-vitamins gimmick for WCW, which trailed the WWF in the ratings.

At a pay-per-view event in Daytona Beach on July 7, 1996, Hogan turned heel. He joined fellow WWF refugees Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to form the New World Order. As Hogan addressed the angry crowd, garbage pelted the heel wrestlers in the ring.

The nWo became one of the most successful gimmicks in wrestling history. WCW overtook WWF in the ratings. The nWo T-shirt became a best seller. The heel stable became “cool” and “got over” with more cheers than the good guys.

Like most gimmicks, the nWo ran its course, but it fundamentally changed the business of professional wrestling.

So what's all this have to do with the space biz?

You probably know that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk bought Twitter in October for $44 billion. He fired executives, fired staff, and those who remained were told to work brutal hours or accept severance payments. Musk founded the acquisition in part with funding from a Saudi holding company.

The value of Tesla shares, year-to-date in 2022. Image source: Google.

Musk has sold billions of dollars of his Tesla shares to help pay his debt; year-to-date in 2022, the value of the car company's shares have plummeted from about $400 per share to $150. That's a loss of about 62% in this calendar year.

According to recent media reports, Twitter has failed to pay rent on its offices in recent weeks. Most of its revenue comes from selling advertising (which is why we see all those annoying ad tweets) but, according to media reports, many significant advertisers have left Twitter. Musk has picked fights with some of those advertisers, most notably Apple, after Musk promised to resurrect extremist accounts linked to white supremacists and insurrectionsts, including former President Donald Trump. Musk was photographed today attending the World Cup with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

In recent days, Musk banned journalists from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other media companies, supposedly because they reported on a University of Central Florida student who built a web site that tracks Musk's personal jet using information publicly available from the Federal Aviation Administration. Musk has threatened to sue the student and “organizations who supported harm to my family,” claiming that media reports on his whereabouts make him a target for assassination.

Um, okay.

While he was at the World Cup, Musk banned mention on Twitter of other social media platforms. Twitter users, including me, have been signing up for other platforms because they're fed up with Elon's antics. Any tweet posting that you're on another social media platform is grounds for banishment.

Elon Musk in April had tweeted that he intended to buy Twitter to restore “free speech,” but his definition of that has been so capricious and arbitrary that many of us no longer know if what we're posting is legal by his whims or not.

Elon Musk's April 26, 2022 tweet defining “free speech.” Image source: Twitter.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution regulates government restrictions on speech, but that doesn't apply to a private company such as Twitter. Musk can ban people for any reason he wants — and he is.

While he's been busy running Twitter into the ground, Musk seems to have paid less attention to SpaceX, their new launch system Starship in particular. In November, COO Gwynne Shotwell and long-time Vice President Mark Juncosa have been reassigned to Starship. Not only is SpaceX relying on Starship for its future business model, but NASA is relying upon a lunar version of Starship for Project Artemis to land astronauts on the Moon's surface.

April 16, 2021 ... NASA announces the selection of the SpaceX Starship for its first Human Landing System on the Moon. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

SpaceX has become NASA's dominant vendor. SpaceX Falcon boosters launch NASA payloads. SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launch cargo and crew to the International Space Station. SpaceX also launches payloads for the Space Force. The SpaceX Starlink satellite network provides remote communications for American military services, and has been a lifeline for Ukraine this year as the nation defends itself against Russian invasion. In October, around the time he bought Twitter, Musk threatened to cut off Ukraine unless the Pentagon paid for Ukraine's Starlink services.

Unlike Tesla, SpaceX is a privately held company. Elon remains the dominant shareholder at both. If he can't make his debt payments, one has to wonder at what point he has to start selling off his SpaceX shares. Does he declare bankruptcy or sell off assets?

In October 2005, as the Federal Trade Commission considered granting United Launch Alliance a legal monopoly for all U.S. government launch requirements, Musk sued, but ultimately lost because SpaceX had no rockets to offer. Here we are sixteen years later; ULA is still alive, and Blue Origin might one day offer another option, but SpaceX dominates the launch landscape. If SpaceX were to go bust because of Musk's debts, would the government have to bail out the company as it has with other distressed industries in the past?

For more than a decade, Elon Musk was the space industry's Hulk Hogan. His acquisition of Twitter, and subsequent behavior, have turned him heel in the eyes of many. Some have wondered if Elon's heel turn is all an act, if he's trying to create controversy because it will increase Twitter activity and therefore appeal to advertisers. If it is, it's not working, because lots of virtual garbage is being thrown at him online. Musk has destroyed much of the good will he's built up with the American public in the last decade. I wouldn't be surprised if a congressional hearing is held sometime in the next session to question the government's reliance on SpaceX given Elon's apparent instability.

UPDATE December 19, 2022CNN reports that Twitter has deleted its policy banning mention of other social media platforms. Elon Musk posted a poll asking if he should step down as CEO, but also threatened, “As the saying goes, be careful what you wish, as you might get it.”

Leonidas al Raisi, a music producer and entrepreneur who says he's an investor in Tesla and Twitter, posted a series of tweets Sunday night claiming he “overheard Elon Musk [at the World Cup] discussing investment opportunities from the Amir of Qatar @TamimBinHamad & other Saudi Royals for his businesses, specifically Twitter,but from their body language & diplomatic response, it didn’t seem very positive. They asked him to find a suitable CEO ... he was told by his Saudi & Qatari investors to get his shit together. They are not happy with the way he is proving to be an amateur CEO and asked him to step down. That tweet followed by this ‘pretend’ poll asking if he should step down as CEO to save the embarrassment. Remember that Saudi Prince @Alwaleed_Talal invested $1.89 Billion and Qatar @QIA about $400 Million in Twitter. They are the real Power at Twitter.” Raisi's claims have not been independently verified.

I'm still on Twitter at @WordsmithFL but no longer posting there. You can find me active on Counter.Social at @WordsmithFL. It's not doing much right now, but I'm also on Post.News at @WordsmithFL.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Thin Air

Why does the launch vehicle on the left look like the one on the right? And why is that a bad idea? Images source: NASA.

Bedeviled by liquid hydrogen leaks in their Space Launch System's core stage, NASA's Artemis 1 launch team have decided to cut their losses and roll the launch vehicle yet again back to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The devil is in the details.

Liquid hydrogen is a finicky fuel. It's one of many options an engineer has when designing a new rocket. Few rockets, though, use this fuel, which has the chemical formula LH2.

Rockets go up because of the combustion exhaust from the engine nozzles. As Isaac Newton would say, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To create combustion, a chemical reaction is created in the engine’s combustion chamber. For combustion to occur, the reaction must complete what firefighters call the fire triangle. The three components of the fire triangle are a heat source, an oxidizer, and the fuel.

The heat source is typically some sort of ignition, e.g. a spark igniter or an injected chemical called TEA-TEB. The RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), repurposed for SLS, use an augmented spark igniter.

The most common oxidizer is liquid oxygen (LOX). To keep oxygen in a liquid state, it must be chilled to at least -297°F (-183°C).

But that's positively balmy compared to liquid hydrogen.

To keep LH2 in a liquid state, it must be maintained at a minimum temperature of -423°F (-253°C).

Starting in the 1950s, NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), began researching a number of fuels that could be mixed with an oxidizer to create combustion for rocket propulsion. LH2 was one of the more exotic fuels researched. LH2 provided about 40% more thrust per pound of fuel burned each second than RP-1, a highly refined kerosene that leaves a hydrocarbon residue after combustion. RP-1 is used to this day by rockets such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance Atlas V, because it can be maintained at room temperature and it's relatively affordable. Hydrogen, the lightest element, is only about half as dense as kerosene.

To achieve the equivalent thrust of RP-1, an LH2 design would require a much larger tank. The tank's components would have to resist LH2's extremely low temperatures. Any leak could lead to catastrophic consequences. A hydrogen fire in daylight is invisible. In the early days of Saturn, support crews would carry brooms in front of them; if the broom caught fire, they knew hydrogen was leaking and burning.

The first stage of the Apollo-era Saturn V generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust from its five F-1 engines. Those engines burned RP-1. Wernher von Braun and his design engineers knew that an LH2 tank would have to be much larger than the S-IC first stage. The Saturn V's upper stages used LH2; they operated in the vacuum of space after the first stage had escaped the atmosphere, achieved near-orbital velocity, and separated from the rest of the stack. The upper stages, therefore, didn't have to be very large.

The Saturn rockets were expendable, meaning the stages either fell back into the Atlantic Ocean, burned up in the atmosphere, or were abandoned to the solar system.

The Space Shuttle, however, was intended to be reusable.

President Richard Nixon's 1969 Space Task Group Report recommended, “A reusable chemically fueled shuttle operating between the surface of the Earth and low-earth orbit in an airline-type mode” as part of a “space transportation system.” (The STS designation for Shuttle missions was an acronym for Space Transportation System.).

If reusability was the goal, LH2 seemed to make more sense as a fuel than RP-1, because RP-1 engines would require cleaning after a flight. An LH2 engine's exhaust is water vapor.

An early Space Shuttle design concept. Image source: Capcom Espace.

The problem, though, was launch.

Unless a very large fuel tank was used, LH2 due to its low density wouldn't provide enough thrust to launch a big heavy payload. NASA engineers in the early 1970s tried all sorts of concepts, such as a second spaceplane as a booster burning a conventional fuel, while the orbiter would use LH2 once in space. The booster spaceplane would also be crewed, and glide to a landing back at the launch site. This Rube Goldberg Machine concept wasn't very practical or affordable.

The chosen design fudged on the promise of full reusability.

NASA engineers came up with an expendable External Tank (ET) that contained the LOX and LH2. It separated from the orbiter 8½ minutes after launch, fell back into the atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean.

To build up enough thrust to leave the pad and send the payload on its way, the engineers attached Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) on either side of the ET. The SRBs burned a solid fuel for a little more than two minutes after launch, then separated from the ET and fell back empty into the Atlantic Ocean. Recovery ships retrieved the SRBs and brought them back to Cape Canaveral for refurbishment.

The STS-1 launch on April 12, 1981. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

If you watch a Space Shuttle launch, those three engines firing on the bottom of the orbiter might look impressive, but they're not providing most of the thrust. Each of the three engines provides only about 500,000 pounds (2 million N) of thrust. Each of the two SRBs provides about 3 million pounds (13.3 million N) of thrust. The rough calculation is that the SRBs provided about 80% of the thrust at launch. The LH2-fueled SSMEs provided the remaining 20%. Imagine how huge the External Tank would have to be to provide all that thrust at liftoff! The orbiter would have required much larger engines, or many more engines.

The Space Shuttle program was bedeviled by hydrogen leaks. The leaks occurred throughout the history of the program, including STS-119 and STS-127 in 2009, and STS-133 in 2010, near the program's end.

It was around that time that Congress was debating what human spaceflight program should succeed the Space Shuttle.

The Machiavellian machinations of that period have been detailed by NASA's then-Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver. Her book, Escaping Gravity, was published in June. I published a review of the book on June 1.

NASA's Fiscal Year 2011 budget, proposed by the Obama administration, included $3.1 billion over the next five fiscal years to research and develop a new approach to first-stage launch propulsion, and another $7.8 billion over those five years to invent new approaches to spaceflight such as in-orbit fuel depots, and new rendezvous and docking techniques.

Led by two Senators, Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Congress said no to all that.

The Obama administration's proposals didn't protect existing Shuttle contracts, and therefore contractor jobs, in the senators' states. Aided and abetted by other members of the Senate and House, and apparently certain NASA executives as well as the Shuttle contractors, they imposed on the White House a program they named, “Space Launch System.”

September 14, 2011 ... Senators Bill Nelson and Kay Baily Hutchison unveil their design for Space Launch System. Video source: Space SPAN YouTube channel.

A group calling itself the Competitive Space Task Force dubbed the proposal Senate Launch System because it was designed to protect vested interests rather than push new launch technologies. NASA was required to use existing Shuttle technologies and faciities, and was forbidden from innovating unless there was no choice. Rather than fight a losing battle, the White House succumbed to political pressure and agreed to the perpetuation of 1970s technologies. New first-stage booster technology and in-orbit fuel depots were forgotten. SLS became the law of the land in the 2010 NASA authorization act.

Mandating that NASA use existing Shuttle technology meant the continued use of LH2 as a fuel. SLS is basically a Space Shuttle stack, except the side-mounted orbital spaceplane has been replaced by the Orion capsule atop the stack. The SSMEs, now called RS-25s, migrated from the bottom of the orbiter to the bottom of the enlarged external tank, now called a Core Stage. Even though the Core Stage is much bigger than its side boosters, once again the SRBs will provide most of the thrust at liftoff, about 75% by NASA's estimate.

So here we are, twelve years after the hydrogen leaks of STS-133, twelve years after Congress foisted SLS upon NASA ... and we're still experiencing hydrogen leaks.

The NASA engineers of the 1970s can be forgiven for selecting LH2. They were trying to develop a reusable launch vehicle; clean-burning hydrogen as a fuel made sense to them. NASA's charter directs the agency to engage in the “improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.” Pushing the envelope is NASA's raison d'être.

But SLS is not new technology. NASA engineers were forced by Congress to design a launch vehicle with technology nearly a half-century old. Unlike Shuttle, SLS is not partially reusable. It's expendable. As did their predecessors, the SRBs will fall back to the Atlantic Ocean, but this time they won't have parachutes. They'll splat into the Atlantic Ocean, and what remains will sink to the bottom. The Core Stage will fall back into the atmosphere and destroy itself, along with the RS-25 engines that were scavenged from the Shuttle orbiters. Engines that were used over and over on Shuttle will be used once more, but never again.

If SLS is expendable, then there's no reason to use liquid hydrogen as a fuel. But Congress didn't care. They were interested in protecting Shuttle contacts, and the jobs that went with them.

The irony is that Bill Nelson, the co-architect of Space Launch System, is now NASA Administrator. The fox is now running the hen house.

September 2, 2022 ... Science correspondent Miles O'Brien interviews Bill Nelson and Lori Garver about SLS delays. Video source: PBS NewsHour YouTube channel.

When asked by PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien about the false assumption twelve years ago that perpetuating old Shuttle technologies would result in faster development of SLS, Nelson replied, “It was a seducing argument, because there were certain technologies we were comfortable with.”

Imagine if, at the dawn of the 20th Century, with the advent of the automobile, Congress had decided to protect the horse-and-buggy industry by mandating that government agencies only purchase horse-drawn carriages. To torture an analogy, horses were the liquid hydrogen engine of their time. They were finicky. And sometimes leaked. (Road apples were the era's hydrogen leak.) But they were reusable.

What should NASA's launch future be? The horse-drawn carriage? Or the Tesla?

UPDATE September 5, 2022 — If LH2 is too impractical for launch reusability, then what fuel is?

The answer seems to be methane, which has the chemical formula CH4.

To turn methane from a gas to liquid, its temperature must be at least -260°F (-162°C). So unlike RP-1, it can’t be kept at room temperature, but it's warmer than LH2 and almost as cold as LOX.

SpaceX and Blue Origin are now producing liquid methane engines. The SpaceX Raptor will be used on the company’s new Starship and Super Heavy vehicles. The Blue Origin BE-4 engine will be used on their New Glenn, and is also being sold to United Launch Alliance for their Vulcan rocket. All three companies plan to reuse part or all of their boosters.

Like RP-1, methane is a hydrocarbon, but its combustion residue is much cleaner, meaning a vehicle with CH4/LOX engines can be processed and launched again much more quickly. If you’re a commercial company like SpaceX, Blue Origin, or ULA, that efficiency reduces costs and makes your product more competitive.

Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX is to colonize Mars, making humanity a multiplanetary species. NASA and other spacefaring agencies have been searching for methane on Mars; if it exists, then one day it might be collected to refuel spaceships. Methane naturally exists throughout the solar system, but then hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so your fuel of choice may depend on the physics of your travel.

Had Congress passed the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget request to fund new first-stage launch propulsion technologies, by now NASA probably would have developed functional CH4 engines and American industry would have leapt ahead of the rest of the spacefaring world.

Because Congress opted to go backwards, American entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos invested their billions in reusability. The United States is now the only nation with reusable boosters, no thanks to Congress.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Garver Unchained, Part VI: "Escaping Gravity," A Book Review

Lori Garver interviewed in May 2013. Video source: NASA Video YouTube channel.

“You can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his back.”

— Attributed to Dr. Beverly Rubik

Other than Elon Musk, arguably the most disruptive and controversial figure in American aerospace this century is Lori Garver.

Loved and reviled, admired and feared, Garver as President Barack Obama's first NASA Deputy Administrator fought to change the agency's sclerotic culture. For decades, NASA had wasted taxpayer money and failed to deliver promised new technologies. She was the champion for a “NewSpace” movement that had long believed NASA should open the space frontier to human settlement through the private sector.

The Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs began under Obama's predecessor, but Cargo wasn't a priority and Crew wasn't funded. The George W. Bush administration's priority was Project Constellation, an “OldSpace ” government program based on government rockets that promised the Moon but was years behind schedule, way over budget, and plagued with technical problems. Urged by Garver, the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation. Congress ultimately agreed.

It's been nearly ten years since Garver left office. Her legacy is undeniable. It's because of her that government astronauts now travel to the International Space Station in commercial spacecraft launched on commercial rockets, at a fraction of what it cost during the Apollo and Space Shuttle years.

NASA loves to promote its “spinoffs.” The spinoff from the Commercial Crew program is that strictly private crews now fly to space. The Inspiration4 mission in September 2021 flew four civilians for three days to the highest altitude achieved by humans since the Apollo era. The Axiom Space Ax-1 mission in April 2022 sent a private crew of four to spend 17 days in orbit, most of that time aboard the ISS.

Suborbital adventure tourism flights by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin also flew for the first time in 2021. Although neither is part of the Commercial Crew program, both companies have been paid by NASA to fly microgravity experiments, and may in the future fly NASA astronauts on suborbital training flights.

Garver was vilified during her service, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing so far as the OldSpace community was concerned. She insisted that NASA respect taxpayer dollars and the chain of command. Her presence threatened a space-industrial complex that had long flipped the bird at government rules and regulations. Entrenched bureaucracies, legacy contractors, connected lobbyists, and their politician beneficiaries viewed her as an incorruptible clear and present danger to their status quo.

After she left office in September 2013, Garver spoke more openly about NASA affairs she'd witnessed, which led me to post a series of blog articles called “Garver Unchained.” You can find all the articles at the bottom of this column. Over the years, publicly and privately, I've urged her to write a book that documented the pivotal events during her time serving President Obama.

My wish is granted.

Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age is part memoir, part tell-all, part public policy manual. For the first time, Garver details what really happened behind the scenes, and quotes some of her enemies in the NASA hiearchy as well as on Capitol Hill.

For years, astronauts and politicians have taken pot shots at her. Some might say the book is self-serving, but she wasn't the one who called her names, lied about her career and her politics, or threatened her with death. This is Lori's chance to fire back, on the record, and call out those who thought more about their own little fiefdoms instead of what was best for the nation.

Take for example these words in a 2013 interview by four-time Space Shuttle astronaut Scott Horowitz, who as Associate Administrator during the Bush administration participated in the design of Constellation's Ares I.

Bullshit. It’s just bullshit. I’ll tell you what it is, and it was told to me face-to-face by the person who’s doing this. It’s politics. In 2008 Lori [B.] Garver looked at me at a symposium, out at Stanford [University, Stanford, California], shortly after I left NASA — I’d never been at this thing before — and said, “When Hillary Clinton is elected President I’m going to cancel Constellation.”

I said, “Why would you do that? One, you seem not to know very much about it. Two, what if you find it’s actually meeting its goals, and has issues, but it’s doing well?”

She looked at me and says, “You don’t understand, it’s politics.”

This is all about taking money away from red states [Republican party strongholds] and sending it to people who support their political desires. It’s that simple. Anybody who thinks it’s anything else is full of themselves. I lived in [Washington] DC for about two and a half years. I couldn’t wait to get out. Eight-mile-by-eight-mile square, referred to as a 64-square-mile logic-free zone.

I wasn't there, so I can't tell you if his recollection is true or false, but his remarks reflect a stunning ignorance about NASA's budget and appropriation process. Lori Garver knows better.

Perhaps most disappointing is to read in detail about the dysfunctional relationship between Garver and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. A four-time astronaut and former Marine Corps general, Bolden served Obama across both terms. Whatever else one might think of Charlie, you can't help but like him. He's humble, cordial, and warm. Many times over his years in office, he's been moved to tears during public remarks, wearing his heart on his flight suit.

During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Garver served as space advisor to candidate Hillary Clinton. After Clinton lost the nomination, Garver joined Obama's campaign and helped evolve its space policy. After Obama was elected, Garver led the team to transition NASA leadership from the Bush administration to Obama.

The transition team, according to Garver, recommended Steve Isakowitz. At the time he was the Department of Energy's Chief Financial Officer, appointed by Bush in 2007. Isakowitz had also worked in the Office of Management and Budget, which determines each federal government agency's budget for a fiscal year, and served as the Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

His nomination was shot down by Bill Nelson, a fellow Democrat and the senior senator from the State of Florida. Nelson served on the Senate committee that would review and approve the President's NASA nominations. In early 1986, while serving as Brevard County's representative in the House, Nelson flew at NASA's invitation on the last flight of the Space Shuttle before the Challenger accident. Charlie Bolden was his mission's pilot. The two became lifelong friends. Nelson insisted that Bolden be the nominee. Obama, preoccupied with the Great Recession and national health care, acquiesced rather than get into a fight with Nelson. On May 23, 2009, the White House announced the President's nominations of Bolden for Administrator, and Garver for Deputy Administrator.

The Senate ultimately confirmed them both.

The Senate confirmation hearing for Charlie Bolden and Lori Garver on July 8, 2009. Video source: Space SPAN YouTube channel.

The relationship between Bolden and Garver, at least publicly, seemed warm and affectionate. At a July 2009 NASA “all-hands” meeting, Bolden described himself as a hugger and admitted that he cried easily. Garver said she was a hugger too, and they hugged on stage. “Feelings are not something that were popular in the last few years at NASA,” Garver said, “but they’re back. Feelings are back!”

Here's how the Code of Federal Regulations defines the roles of the Administrator and Deputy Administrator:

Administrator — “NASA is headed by an Administrator, who is appointed from civilian life by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Administrator is responsible, under the supervision and direction of the President, for exercising all powers and discharging all duties of NASA.”

Deputy Administrator — “The Deputy Administrator of NASA is also appointed by the President from civilian life by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Deputy Administrator acts with or for the Administrator within the full scope of the Administrator's responsibilities. In the Administrator's absence, the Deputy Administrator serves as Acting Administrator.”

The regulation granted the deputy “the full scope of the Administrator's responsibilities,” meaning Garver was just as responsible as Bolden for acting at the “direction of the President.” Garver details in the book her June 2008 space policy discussion with candidate Obama, her leadership of the President-Elect's NASA transition team late that year, and her oversight of the NASA section of the President's proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill introduced in Congress in February 2009. Garver was implementing candidate Obama's campaign promise to stimulate the commercial use of space and private-sector use of the ISS. She was never discouraged by Obama or anyone else in the White House from pursuing this transformative agenda.

In one role or another, formal or informal, Garver for a year had been representing Obama's direction for the American space program. Bolden was a latecomer, imposed by an influential senator with a different agenda. He had no vested interest in furthering the President's policies, other than a statutory responsibility to act at the “direction of the President.” To Garver, Bolden seemed more interested in protecting the workforce and legacy contractors, many of whom were his friends and former colleagues.

Lori wrote how disappointed she was that she wasn't able to resolve her problems with Charlie. She left the agency in September 2013, with the arrows in her back just like Dr. Rubik's pioneer.

Another criticism levelled at Garver was that she wasn't an engineer, she wasn't “technical.” Take for example this criticism by three-time Shuttle astronaut Mike Coats, who went on to serve as the Johnson Space Center director from 2005 to 2012.

It’s not unusual to have the Deputy Administrator be a political type, political appointee; Shana [L.] Dale was a Republican under Mike [Griffin], so it wasn’t unusual to have it. Lori started to — and I think Charlie didn’t have any choice — but she wanted to get involved in the technical decisions, in the management decisions. Remember, Lori had no executive or management experience. None, zero, zip. And she had no technical background. She prided herself on not being technical, and now she’s the Deputy Administrator of NASA.

You can click here to read NASA's Lori Garver biography and judge for yourself. You'll find that Mr. Coats and the truth are not close friends. In the book, Garver denies that she tried to impose “technical” design decisions.

James Webb, the NASA Administrator under President John F. Kennedy, wasn't “technical” either. His college degree was in Education. He later earned a juris doctor degree and became a lawyer. Webb served in both the public and private sectors; his federal service included stints in the Bureau of the Budget and the State Department. When Kennedy appointed him, Webb was a director at an Oklahoma oil company. Webb didn't have to be an engineer because he had Wernher von Braun running Marshall Space Flight Center, charged with designing the agency's launch vehicles. Von Braun had a credible track record going back to his Peenemünde days in Germany.

A half-century later, when Garver took office, NASA's track record for decades had been less than stellar when it came to designing launch vehicles. Constellation was the latest in a series of projects that had fallen behind schedule and gone way over budget. The days of Wernher von Braun were long in the past.

To this day, Webb is generally revered as the best Administrator in NASA History. Michael Griffin, the final Administrator during the W. Bush administration, was an aerospace engineer and closely involved himself in Constellation's design and development. The record suggests that having an engineer in charge of NASA is not only unnecessary, but might be analogous to nominating a fox for Hen House Administrator.

If Garver has a primary antagonist, it's Bill Nelson.

Lori Garver (far left) attends a 2010 meeting with Charlie Bolden, Bill Nelson, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and others. Image source: CNBC.

It didn't make the final print, but in May 2020 Garver published a “preview” of her book on the CNBC web site, co-written by CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz. Along with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Nelson had led those trying to save Constellation, or at least the legacy contracts associated with Constellation.

Out of their negotiations with Bolden and the White House came a “grand compromise” in which Congress would agree to end Constellation and fund Commercial Crew, but only if the Obama administration agreed to support yet another new government launch vehicle, ultimately called Space Launch System.

When it came time to fund Commercial Crew, Nelson and the rest of Congress underfunded the NewSpace program by 62% over its first three years, delaying the project until the end of the decade. SLS, however, was fully funded. Congress wrote a law requiring NASA to use the legacy contractors from Shuttle and Constellation. No bids, no competition.

Here we are in May 2022, and SLS has yet to launch. No surprise, it's years behind schedule, way over budget, and plagued with technical problems. The first uncrewed test flight is now planned for no earlier than August 2022. In an April 2022 report, the NASA Office of the Inspector General stated, “NASA will exceed its current timetable of landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years due to technical difficulties,” projected that NASA will have spent $93 billion on Project Artemis by 2025, and the cost per mission will be $4 billion.

Nelson's 2010 law mandated that SLS launch by the end of 2016. It's now more than five years behind schedule.

The cruel irony is that, in 2021, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden nominated Nelson to be his NASA Administrator. The fox now runs the hen house.

It came too late to be included in Lori's book but, on May 3, 2022 during a congressional hearing, Nelson stunned the space industry by ridiculing no-bid cost-plus contracts as a “plague” afflicting the agency. NASA had used cost-plus contracts for decades, which assured that OldSpace companies were guaranteed a profit, no matter how poorly they performed. Nelson's SLS, foisted on the American taxpayer twelve years ago, is the latest example. During her time in office, Garver fought to replace cost-plus with fixed-price contracts negotiated by competitive bid.

Commercial Crew was her finest moment, and her vindication.

He never uttered her name, but Nelson's turnabout was a tacit admission that Lori had been right all along.

To quote from page 238 of Escaping Gravity:

It took non-vested interests with the resources to take on the space-industrial complex to jump-start the transition to a new space age. Thanks to a handful of space pirates, billionaires, and bureaucrats willing to stand up to the system of patronage, progress is now being realized. A program that was scorned by the establishment when it was introduced is now using innovative, reusable, private-sector-driven technologies to provide space transportation at a fraction of the cost of past government owned and operated programs — just imagine what else is possible.

I'd like to imagine that those arrow wounds in her back have begun to heal.

Garver acknowledges in her closing Author's Note that she's not a professional writer. This is, after all, a memoir. As such, I did find a few errors. In particular, on page 167 the book states that the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches from “the same pad where the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle missions had launched.” That's incorrect. Pad 39A was built specifically for the Apollo Saturn V, then in the 1970s converted for Shuttle. Mercury and Gemini were south at Cape Canaveral launch pads.

Garver writes that NASA, under the Bush administration, had intended to fund Constellation by ending the ISS program. That is true, in that the Bush administration's final proposed NASA budget, Fiscal Year 2009, page Spa-28, showed NASA still intended to end ISS operations in Fiscal Year 2016. But Garver doesn't mention that Section 601(a) of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act required the Administrator to “take all necessary steps to ensure that the International Space Station remains a viable and productive facility capable of potential United States utilization through at least 2020 and shall take no steps that would preclude its continued operation and utilization by the United States after 2015.” Which took precedence? The law, of course. But as we discussed upstream, NASA management had no problem with thumbing its nose at the White House or Congress. Had the status quo continued, sometime around 2015 NASA would have submitted a budget that ended ISS, and Congress would have decided to say yes or no. Its demise was by no means a certainty. Garver wrote on page 7 that she believed, “NASA's unstated plan was essentially to trap the next President into adding several billion dollars a year to keep money flowing to Shuttle, Constellation and Space Station contractors.” The conflict with the law is a fine point I would have added, to clarify the “trap.”

Garver uses the term “cup boys” throughout the book, a phrase she adopted from a female NASA executive who used it to describe male colleagues with “ubiquitous coffee mugs adorned with their military call signs ... I've worked with many cup boys throughout my career and found their predisposition to oppose new ideas and new people was often contrary to NASA's mission.” Garver writes on page 141 that Bolden “continued to side with the cup boys more than the President.” On page 177, she describes Mike Coats as Bolden's “best mate and cup boy.” Although I'm sure the ridicule is richly deserved, I'm not sure it's helpful. It's no more appropriate than if Coats or Scott Horowitz referred to her supporters in writing as “Gal Pals.”

On page 195, Garver writes about the so-called “Mercury 13” program, which didn't really exist despite popular myth. I wrote about the Mercury 13 mythology in July 2021. Lori writes that the women “met the qualifications but were kept out of the NASA program.” As I wrote, Dr. William Lovelace conducted a series of private tests circa 1960 to see how women scored when they took the same physical exams as the male Project Mercury candidates, but they didn't undergo all the other tests. Not all women took all tests. NASA was never involved, nor did they explicitly exclude women, because the criteria required military test pilots. At the time, all military test pilots were white males. The term “Mercury 13” was concocted in the 1990s by a documentary film producer who needed a catchy title. Could women have done the job? Absolutely. But Project Mercury and its immediate successors were highly risky and dangerous test flights of unproven technology. Male or female, the agency needed candidates with experience in the environment of aeronautical test flight. The solution would have been for the military to start hiring women as test pilots so they could develop the experience and skills. NASA wasn't proactive about gender and ethnic diversity until the Astronaut Class of 1978 at the dawn of the Space Shuttle era.

Garver is one of the woman pioneers mentoring other women for careers in aerospace. She helped start a woman internship program known today as the Brooke Owens Fellowship. “Brookies” are increasingly common in the industry, thanks to Lori and her co-founders. It's only a matter of time before a “Brookie” goes to space. Future “Brookies” may wish to read Escaping Gravity to better understand the aerospace business, to know what to expect, and how Lori Garver made it a bit easier for them.

Who else should read Escaping Gravity?

It should be required reading for any student enrolled in the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Garver's alma mater. Anyone interested in public service, especially as a federal government bureaucrat, will find lessons to learn about navigating the treacheries of politics and policy. Those of us who are space policy wonks will finally enjoy reading what happened behind the scenes.

It also leaves the bread crumbs for future historians to follow as they study the most transformative era in the history of human spaceflight since the 1960s. History will be kind to Lori Garver. It will not be as kind to many others.

Escaping Gravity will be available on June 21, 2022. Click here to pre-order on at this link.

Prior “Garver Unchained” articles:

Garver Unchained September 10, 2013

Garver Unchained, Part II January 3, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part III December 4, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part IV April 26, 2016

Garver Unchained, Part V March 19, 2021