Garver turned space policy in a new direction
Lori Garver does not inspire ambivalence. Few who worked with her when she was deputy administrator came away from the experience with a neutral opinion.
To some, she is a ruthless powerhouse whose abrasive ego has run roughshod over opponents, leaving in her wake lost careers and hurt feelings as she trashed policy adversaries among the U.S. space agency's civil servants and congressional backers.
To others, she labored tirelessly to put the U.S. space program on a more realistic footing, redirecting it from its role as an overtasked, underfunded government pork barrel. In this view, Garver has been key in movingtoward a true public-private partnership where the government will only take on pre-commercial projects before they generate any profit.
Garver draws inspiration from a line in the film “Moneyball,” where a baseball-team owner tells an innovative manager that “people go 'bat-shit crazy' when you try to change.”
“I often cite “Moneyball” as a good description of why so much of my blood might have been spilled over this 'transition' away from traditional ways of doing our business in space,” she e-mails, attaching an excerpt from one of her speeches using the quote.
Like it or not, Garver's latest stint at NASA headquarters at least started turning the ship of state onto a new course. When she moved into the ninth-floor executive suite in 2009, the agency was pursuing a “Moon, Mars and Beyond” strategy of human exploration, following the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to separate crew and cargo in the post-shuttle world with an in-house “Constellation program” of vehicles based on shuttle, and even Apollo, technology to save money.
Today, as Garver settles into her new job as general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association, the Constellation program is dead, and NASA is on track to rely entirely on the private sector for human access to low Earth orbit. Launch Complex 39A at, where Apollo 11 set off for the Moon, will be converted to accommodate commercial launches by . The private company founded by Elon Musk already is delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) under a 12-flight, $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract set up on Garver's watch.
SpaceX and other companies hope to add NASA astronauts and private space travelers to their flight manifests, using vehicles developed with partial funding under the commercial crew development program that was initiated as part of Garver's “transition.”
The first person to cross swords with Garver this time around was Michael Griffin, the George W. Bush administration NASA chief who kicked off the $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) seed-money effort to force the private sector to put some “skin in the game” on spaceflight developments. SpaceX and. used COTS funds and their own money to develop the commercial cargo vehicles now serving the ISS, and it was the model for the ongoing commercial crew program. But Griffin, the Republican uber-engineer, clashed with Democratic policy wonk Garver when she took over as the space-policy lead on President Barack Obama's transition team, famously telling her she was not technically qualified.
“He wanted to speak to the most senior person focused on space in the Obama administration, and I told him that he was doing so,” Garver says, citing the natural “tension” between outgoing and incoming political appointees. “We worked through that,” she says.
Griffin, who declined to comment for this article, left office on Jan. 20, 2009, Inauguration Day, and Obama nominated Garver to be deputy administrator. But his choice to be administrator—retiredMaj. Gen. Scott Gration—did not pass muster with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee that confirms candidates for the position. That left Garver and her allies in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with a fairly free rein to decide what Obama space policy would be until an alternate was named.
She brought an unusual skill set to the job, says space historian John Logsdon, who taught Garver when she was gaining her master's degree in space policy at George Washington University. Instead of rising through the ranks at the agency itself, on a congressional committee or as an engineer, she shifted between space-policy consulting jobs and policy positions at NASA, after spending nine years heading the National Space Society. In that role she often moved outside the traditional aerospace community, working with people like space-colonization activist Gerard O'Neill and others who had been more interested in advancing a spacefaring civilization than with staying ahead of the rest of the world in spaceflight feats.
She also worked in presidential campaigns for John Kerry and Hillary Clinton before joining the Obama campaign after Clinton withdrew. “One thing to think about is all the different jobs she had, and how those translated into her attitude toward the program,” says Logsdon, who terms his former graduate student “a political animal from the get-go.”
Despite Garver's political chops—and the popularity of Administrator Charlie Bolden, an affable Marine general who commanded the space shuttle mission that took Senator Nelson into orbit on a congressional ride in 1986—the rollout of the policy that emerged from the Obama White House was botched. There were no briefings on Capitol Hill until the day before it came out as part of the fiscal 2010 budget request, and only a handful of PowerPoint charts by way of explanation after its release. The rollout triggered uncertainty across the U.S. space program and beyond (AW&ST Feb. 8, 2010, p. 20).
Behind the scenes, says Garver, the White House was digesting the report of the human-spaceflight panel chaired by Norman Augustine, which said the Constellation Program was not sustainable, even with an extra $3 billion a year (AW&ST Sept. 14, 2009, p. 36). Discussions at “very senior” levels among NASA, OSTP, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Economic Council honed the shift from Constellation to commercial that Garver was pushing, but not at the pace she would have preferred today.
“The way we were formulating the policy got into the budget schedule, which is something I regret,” Garver says. “I would have liked to have had a stand-alone policy, separate from the budget. We were working on the national space policy at that time; we got it out the next June, but policies—if you can believe it—take longer than budgets.”
The way the change was introduced set a lot of congressional teeth on edge, and launched a nasty political fight that left many on Capitol Hill feeling Garver and her White House allies were using every trick in the book to avoid following through on “compromise” legislation. That legislation—signed by Obama—created the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) as an in-house project her supporters dubbed the “Senate launch system.” Ultimately OMB chief Jacob Lew—now Treasury Secretary—under pressure from Nelson and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) ordered the work to proceed (AW&ST Sept. 19, 2011, p. 47). Despite nasty infighting, Garver won respect from her opponents.
“Lori has been a steadfast and ardent supporter of the new vision for spaceflight that includes increased reliance on commercial capabilities, either in partnership or as an alternative to government capability,” says Jeff Bingham, a retired Senate staffer who worked for Hutchison during the policy battle. “She has been unwavering in her commitment to that cause, and that is a commitment in the long run shared by, I think, the majority of folks in Congress who support space activity. We crossed swords [on] timing and approach and the means to implement that transition.”
Now that she has left office, Garver is more open in her opposition to SLS. She has publicly called for killing the big rocket. And there is at least a chance she'll be able to take up that fight as a political appointee down the road, should her mentor Hillary Clinton wind up back in the White House as president.