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 Amazon.com 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