As NASA’s deputy administrator, “Escaping Gravity” author Lori Garver fought to cancel the Constellation program and shift NASA to use commercial partnerships in spaceflight. She failed at the first but succeeded at the second. She joins the show to discuss the lessons she learned from her time at NASA, key strategies for bringing change to a reticent bureaucracy, and the ways in which NASA should serve the nation and the public.
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Mat Kaplan: Welcome everyone, once again, to the Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of the weekly show, back once again as we usually are on the first Friday of the month, with the senior space policy advisor for The Planetary Society and our chief advocate, Casey Dreier. Welcome, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Thanks, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: I am so looking forward to sharing this wonderful conversation that I have just listened to, that you have just had with Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA. And as you know, the author of this terrific new book Escaping Gravity, which I talked to Lori about just a few weeks ago, and was so looking forward to and I know she was looking forward to it as well. This follow up conversation with you, it so well complements that conversation that I had with her. I think people are going to love it.
Casey Dreier: I really tried to take a different track to expand on the discussion that you had and that she's been having on other shows. And I don't think you'll hear anything quite like this. So we kind of take the themes of the book and really use that as a jumping off point to explore broader, how do you make a change at an organization? How do you implement policy that gets put in place successfully? And to really challenge some of both of our models about what commercial and private space flight will mean to the public, and some of the thoughts on big programs like the SLS. And so it's a more of a conversation than an interview about the book. But again, it's built on that foundation. Yeah, really enjoyed talking to her about it.
Mat Kaplan: And as I said to you and Lori, at the end of it, it was so wonderful to be able to listen to two people who are so knowledgeable on this topic and so passionate about it. Also, that she mentioned several times during the conversation, she brought up things which did not make it into the book, because the book obviously was directed to a popular audience. Sounded like she was very happy to be able to talk about these deeper policy and related issues with you.
Casey Dreier: Talking to a knowledgeable person who's been through it in practice is just a whole other level. So again, that's coming up in just a few minutes, this conversation that we just had.
Mat Kaplan: Before we talk a little bit about what's in the news, because there have been some significant developments in the news. Let us remind you that you can go to planetary.org/join. In fact, we encourage you to do that. If you are not yet a member of the planetary society, because it is our members who make all of this possible, these great conversations between people like Casey and Lori Garver.
Mat Kaplan: It's a tiny piece of what The Planetary Society does overall, but it is all enabled by our members. And we thank those of you who are already supporting the organization in the best way possible as members. We hope that the rest of you will consider at least taking a look at the various levels. You can come into support of this little organization that has accomplished so much.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, let's get to some of that news. I am thrilled to know that you and I and our colleague at the society, Rae Paoletta, will all be there, hopefully watching as the Space Launch System lifts off of Pad 39A for the very first time on the 29th of August. A lot of wishful thinking there. What would you say? 50/50?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. What could go wrong? Yeah. I don't know. I hope they worked out most of the bugs in the wet dress rehearsal. We'll be there for a couple launch attempts. But hopefully you'll hear us talking about this on next month's show in early September. But yeah, it's an opportunity that I would not want to miss. It's 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. I have not seen that in my lifetime. I am hoping to see it relatively soon. And really just kind of dive into this, the whole broad topic of the program. And we've been taking an opportunity to do that at the society and we have some new resources online for folks as of today.
Mat Kaplan: Tell me about this article. Because as we speak, it hasn't quite made it onto the website yet, but it will be there by the time people hear this program. And you've written about SLS and what got us here.
Casey Dreier: It's putting down in words and argument I've been making for a while, and this is something that listeners may recognize, or participants of our twice yearly policy briefings that we do for our members and donors. And that's really looking into... You know, people ask a lot why do we have the SLS if we've got Falcon Heavy, if Starship is on the way, if we have Blue Origin's rockets, New Glenn coming down the pipeline? It's a great question to ask.
Casey Dreier: I think there's a lot of misunderstanding. And I propose fundamentally that the question is a political one and not a technological one. And until we answer the political question or address the political problem that underlies the SLS, you will continue to have it if you don't like it. And so we talk about this a bit with Lori coming up, but it's fundamentally a political program.
Casey Dreier: You can not like that, that's fine. But I argue in this and I try to take a relatively dispassionate approach. That from the incentive structures that we have in our democracy about geographically distinct representational units, about annual funding processes, about being responsive to local constituencies, this is a natural outcome of the democratic process that we have.
Casey Dreier: Right now, it is churning along. And I make the argument that despite all of the overruns and delays, the program has not suffered even a close shave with political problems or cancellations. As I point out in the article, not just one year or a couple years, literally every single year that the SLS has existed as a program, Congress has given it hundreds of millions of more dollars than was originally requested by NASA. Every single year. And from almost every year, both the House and the Senate, right?
Casey Dreier: It's a big political constituency. And it helps to understand this when you're talking about the problem. And if you don't like the SLS or if you don't think it should be there, it certainly helps to understand why and what purpose it's serving. And that's the effort of this article. And in companion with that, we released a full budget rundown of the SLS and Orion programs tracking their expenditures over the last 15 years. Orion began in 2006. And showing again that altogether those programs, including Orion, including the related ground systems, have cost about $50 billion since 2006. That's a lot of money.
Casey Dreier: And so that's what you'll hear Lori lament aspects of that. But at the same time, I think it helps us to all understand the source of these programs and what they're doing. And then again, if you don't like the SLS, you have to address this fundamental political problem, which I'd say we can take a lesson from in 2010 when Lori and the early Obama administration tried to cancel that program. And they didn't succeed because they couldn't address the fundamental political problem. And so that's I think you can take those lessons and take them forward.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. And of course when they canceled the Constellation program, but it never really went away. It just got a new name essentially. It is a fascinating portion of your conversation with Lori that people should stick around for of course. At the same time, we had a bill pass in the Senate called CHIPS. That on the face of it, you might not think would have much to do with the space exploration, or dare I say it, protecting our home planet. But it actually does, doesn't it?
Casey Dreier: Yeah, the CHIPS bill, which I think is now called the CHIPS and Science Bill. It's being signed into law I think as we record this. It's a very large bill, primarily on industrial policy moving a lot of, or incentivizing a lot of semiconductor production in the United States with $52 billion actually appropriated for that. It has a lot of other science policy, it's a competitiveness technology investments.
Casey Dreier: It's gone through a number of names, transformations over its storied history. But in addition to all that stuff, it has a full NASA authorization bill, which the last time one had passed Congress was 2017. So the first NASA authorization in five years. And authorizations, they don't provide money but they set policy directive and they set guidance. Notably, the 2010 NASA authorization is what created the SLS. And so those can be very influential, powerful pieces of legislation.
Casey Dreier: And this legislation, it's not fundamentally transformative in the way the 2010 authorization was. It's basically a steady as she goes authorization. But it has some really nice things in it. And the something that we are really happy to see is that it has a large section on planetary defense, right? The protection of earth from asteroids. It formally authorizes NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
Casey Dreier: And it calls for NASA to launch NEO Surveyor as soon as practically possible, 2027 if possible. And as early after that, if not. And for the NASA administrator not to cut funding for that mission in case there's overruns in other parts of planetary science, right? A direct kind of... Basically slapping the hand of NASA for doing exactly that in the current budget process.
Casey Dreier: Now this doesn't solve the immediate budget problems of NEO Surveyor, but it now is an official NASA project as authorized by Congress. It's a congressionally authorized project. It demonstrates broad congressional support for it. It tells NASA don't do this again. It's very positive for the program, and we're very happy. This is actually something the society has been pushing for to authorize a congressional authorization for this program for the past two years. And so we're very happy to see this now in the NASA authorization.
Mat Kaplan: And I think that we can give credit to you and the policy side of The Planetary Society for at least a portion of this success, and making sure that it stayed in front of both the public and members of Congress. So congratulations on that, Casey, and thank you.
Mat Kaplan: I got just one other thing I want to bring up, which I hope won't be too much of a surprise. But you and I did talk recently about that announcement by the new head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, that they were going to pull out of the International Space Station after 2024. And you were wisely a little bit skeptical and said, "Yeah, the key phrase being after 2024." We know a little bit more now, don't we?
Casey Dreier: Yeah, yeah. And it was correct. Sometime after 2024, up to and including 2030, maybe 2028. Yeah. And I think, again, we look at actions, not rhetoric from the Russian leadership on this. And a lot of prior statements from Dmitry Rogozin who's no longer there, but was recently replaced, were designed to capture headlines, stir people up and basically be a form of domestic international propaganda.
Casey Dreier: And Borisov the new leader is trafficking in similar types of statements. He was saying that in a very public meeting with Putin, and later backtracked or clarified or added context, however you want to describe it. And said, "Oh, after 2024. Well, we're thinking maybe '28, 2030 at the latest," which is kind of what I... I mean, again, the problem is Russia has no alternative human space flight program. So unless they're willing to stop human space flight, they have no real other choice than to continue cooperating with ISS.
Casey Dreier: ISS commitments, all partner nations, if they want to remove themselves from the partnership, have to submit things in writing at least a year before they intend to do anything. We have not seen that. Russia is saying that they're working on the separate new space station, just like the ISS with its commercial space stations for the 2030s. It probably will be as soon as they have an alternative, that's when you might see some serious change.
Casey Dreier: But the NACA module and other things that we've seen from them have not progressed on time or schedule. There's no, as of yet, serious increase in resources being directed to Roscosmos. So again, I don't anticipate any near-term changes. And again, this is why we need to be cautious in the media and also as a space policy experts that we all are listening to this show, to look again at actions beyond rhetoric. And I think this is a very informative lesson about that
Mat Kaplan: Good call, Casey. Let's get to this great conversation that you've had with Lori Garver. I think we've already said, former deputy administrator of NASA. 25 years, really with the agency and prior... Well, including that, but also prior to that. And she'll mention that a little bit. I'll also refer people to the conversation I had with her during the weekly show, if you want to hear some more background and a little bit more about the book itself. But this is such a wonderful compliment to that conversation. And I do think people will find it fascinating.
Casey Dreier: All right. Lori Garver, welcome to the show. Thanks for being here.
Lori Garver: Thank you for having me. It's wonderful to be with you, Casey.
Casey Dreier: I started at The Planetary Society 10 years ago, this month-ish, which is right around the time a lot of the key items were happening. And I first met you of course in that role when you were still deputy. So it's fascinating for me to read this book, Escaping Gravity, which I recommend our listeners dive into if they haven't yet, to see what you are going through from my outside perspective that entire time.
Casey Dreier: So this is a neat to see history being fleshed out from something that I personally experience. This is a really interesting opportunity to dive into this. So we are not going to touch on a lot of the basic pieces of information in the book, because you've talked about those a lot on various interviews and podcasts, and people should just read the book. But I wanted to talk about some of the broader themes that came out of this that I really resonated with.
Casey Dreier: And the first thing I want to explore with you is this idea of changing institutions, changing bureaucracies, and how to approach a large organization like NASA and try to fundamentally get something new to happen. How did you first approach... Was this a conscious strategy that you tried to implement from the beginning? Or is this something you ended up kind of feeling your way through intuitively as it started to happen when you were first appointed as deputy in 2009?
Lori Garver: Well, Casey, first of all, it is really fun to talk to you about these issues because these were some of the things I couldn't get into in a book that is supposed to be interesting to a broad swath of people. But you, as a professional in this field, have thought about this as much as me. I would say going into NASA the second time, I was taking a lot of what I learned the first time. And I do talk about that in the book.
Lori Garver: Dan Goldin, as the NASA administrator, didn't spend much time on process. He was about driving organizational change. I hadn't academically thought through this is what needs to happen, but I had sort of absorbed lessons from him. And I think that organizational changes about leadership, leaders have to have a clear and coherent vision, have a trusted and capable team. And if you are coming into an organization where you think you need change, that's even more critical than for a leader who is not trying to fundamentally make big changes to an organization.
Lori Garver: And in government, it's especially critical that any intention for change be articulated consistently. And from an aligned leadership team, that was where we fell short. We didn't have that. Once we had an administrator who came in, the transition team, the president elect the heads of the agencies that also had constituency interest in space were all aligned. And that is how we were able to come to agreement that this change was necessary and on the right direction by your NASA administrator wasn't fully on board. And so as I go into in the book, that was the biggest reason we had so many problems in charting a more positive and meaningful course for NASA.
Casey Dreier: We're talking about roughly 17,000 civil servants, tens of thousands of more contractors. If there's a difference of opinion in top leadership that allows all these various constituencies to kind of see a path forward for their own preferred... If nothing, else creates some ambiguity. But something I keyed on, I just want to explore just the actual aspect of changing big bureaucracies. Because you said you were looking at your previous experience at NASA, which is interesting to me.
Casey Dreier: So you're coming in with personal insight to an organization, you're coming in at a higher level, you were in the policy office at NASA in the '90s under Dan Goldin, and then you're coming in as the deputy director. So you have some idea of how the levers work. And that seems like a really critical aspect of knowing how the institution works on the inside first, to be able to find ways where you can apply pressure for change or even see what needs to be changed at a fundamental level to begin with. How critical is that?
Lori Garver: It's critical. I wouldn't have known where to begin if I hadn't had those five years. And I was a direct report to the administrator in his suite for the first year, then down in the policy office. Again, though it was a limited experience to this is how Dan Goldin chose to lead. Even how the center structure reported, how the mission directorates were divided, some of that evolved over time. But I do find that my early years at NASA informed how I thought those levers could be pulled, where you had really a lot more power than sometimes people in a bureaucracy think they do. I was often having to say to the administrator, "You know, you're the one who sets that policy." When someone would say, "Well, that's against our policy."
Casey Dreier: Yeah. And it just strikes me as you're pushing up against... I mean, because I charitably characterize things as inertia. People with their own agendas. And did something in NASA make it uniquely difficult or resistant to change to begin with? Or did you feel like this is with any large organization, you're going to have these fundamental challenges? Is it something like the NASA center structure that presents additional layers of difficulty?
Lori Garver: It is a unique bureaucracy. And I think having centers spread across the country is one of the reasons. It's like the military in that case. But a lot of big organizations have facilities spread out. Those do in a political system become fiefdoms and constituencies of their own. They go rogue often and have their own agendas. They compete with each other. They develop relationships with their congressional delegations and pit I think their local interests against those of the nation.
Lori Garver: That's just a reality you have to deal with. And again, going back to how I answered your question on organizational change, you must have a clear coherent vision and a trusted team. So after Charlie got there and he didn't want to make any changes to people who were clearly opposed to the president's agenda for change, which we felt was really required to get NASA on a better footing for the future. We just had to work within existing, not just structure, but those people who were actively working against the agenda.
Lori Garver: I mean, honestly, it's shocking we got anything done. One of the things I commuted from Virginia, I now live in DC. But every day and you cross the river, and in the morning you'd have those crew teams out there rowing. And I would just think of our team and how we were going in circles. We were never going to win any race because we were not rowing to the same direction. We weren't following direction. In fact, sometimes we were taking our words out and hitting each other with them. So that was a really challenging thing to be a leader in an organization that didn't have a cohesive leadership team.
Casey Dreier: Did you anticipate that? I mean, you must have known it would be challenging to try to cancel Constellation and pursue this brand new path forward of commercial partnerships, particularly for people. Was what you experienced part of your expectations then as a consequence, or did it surprise you? I mean let's put aside the kind of grotesque gendered response that you highlight in your book, but just in terms of how you approached this. You must have known this is going to be an uphill battle to change NASA's internal culture about this.
Lori Garver: I think that once on the transition team, it became clear to us the Constellation wasn't moving forward in a way that was productive. Commercial Crew was always, I think the way we wanted to handle the more immediate transportation needs for astronauts following on COTS. We already had COTS-D. We tried to get that funded in Stimulus, et cetera.
Lori Garver: So I knew canceling Constellation would of course be a very challenging thing to do, but we hadn't fully decided that was a thing to do until later in the year. What I anticipated was always having an administrator of the agency who was aligned with the president on his vision. And it was a relief in the book to be able to talk about how the first selection of Steve Isakowitz had such potential. And sometimes, we wistfully think about that. I can imagine if he had been leading, or someone else with his capabilities would have made just an entire difference.
Lori Garver: So when the White House Personnel Office got back to me in March and said Senator Nelson's just not going to go for anyone other than Charlie Bolden. They asked me how big of a problem I thought he'd be actually. And at that point, I mean, this isn't in the book, but I was specifically asked, "Do you think he would be an embarrassment to the president?" And I said, "No, I do not think he would be an embarrassment. My only reason I hadn't put forward Charlie's name is I didn't think he'd have an aligned vision with the president."
Lori Garver: So when they met, I was told that even Ron Emmanuel said, "Just to be clear, you work for us and not Senator Nelson." And to be clear, I heard Charlie asked if he could have a different deputy, and they said no. And he said, "Well, what if there are conflicts?" And they said, "You both work for the president, so we don't anticipate that."
Lori Garver: So yeah, that beginning was not something that I thought, "Oh, this is going to all be sunshine and roses." But I really wanted to work together well. And as I say in the book, what Charlie said to me directly never gave me the indication he was opposing this vision. But he clearly either didn't understand it, he certainly didn't embrace it. And I'm never to this day sure how actively he fought against it. But yeah, it's pretty clear when you come in as the deputy, when the administrator is already not on board, there's going to be a difficult struggle. And making change like we were trying to, made it nearly impossible.
Casey Dreier: You look back to that point at the beginning of the Obama administration, this was a rare opportunity for change at NASA. Not just the fact that Constellation was nascent in trouble. You had this shuttle ending, but you also had 60 vote majority in the Senate. You had a filibuster proof majority of Democrats for the democratic president and new technology really coming online as it was happening. And yet at the same time, it just feels like barely squeaking it through.
Casey Dreier: One of the lines in your book that I'm most resonated with. I'm going to just read here real quick because it's germane to this particular discussion is, "Perhaps the time has passed for us to design policies and programs based on what retired astronauts may or may not think." That just is like I thought that for a long time, it was really refreshing to see it written out.
Casey Dreier: And I think we go to great lengths to say, we can honor astronauts for the bravery and service. But that doesn't by definition, make them good leaders. And it doesn't make them necessarily have even good perspectives as of NASA. And I think the kind of the implication from your characterizations of Charlie Bolden in this situation as an ex-astronaut, is that there're so closely tied to the system that made them astronauts.
Casey Dreier: One of the probably formative experiences of any person's life, that you don't have any kind of perspective or ability to see the failings of the system, or even disregard your astronaut friends who now represent the institutions that are kind of buying their way into your point of view. So how critical is it that you were an outsider in that sense? Like you knew space policy and you had worked at NASA, but you hadn't been raised to that system. Is that the critical aspect here in terms of coming in and changing an organization?
Lori Garver: I do think having a broader perspective was the value-added I brought. But of course, a lot of people would've brought that. So it's a combination of having previous experiences we discussed in the agency, where I knew where we could make change. And really stepping back and saying, "Why does this agency exist? What is the value proposition? And how can we better fulfill what this nation needs in a space program for the 21st century?" It's like the old adage, if you're a hammer everything looks like a nail.
Lori Garver: I mean, astronauts, they are trained to do specific things and they're amazing at it and heroes. But Charlie says very often, he just spoke at my Brooke Owens Fellowship Summit two weeks ago. And he says, "I didn't even know what policy was when I came in. I didn't have..." He has gone to great lengths to say he was not a good administrator in the beginning. To me, we got all our best things done in the first few years.
Lori Garver: But I really struggled with someone who did not have the big picture. Everything was seen through the lens of an astronaut. And NASA is much, much bigger than that. Even from the astronaut perspective though, it was a short term view of government facilities, government employees, and wanting to be good to the people meant just the people within our existing industry. And I took a much broader approach, which I thought was required when you're making national policy. We should be talking about the latent capability of the agency and what it is NASA as a tool for the United States gives the world.
Casey Dreier: What made you so confident at that time? I was going back and thinking about that era. And I put my head in the place of... Let's say the most generous interpretation of the opposition is, this is unproven commercial partnerships, particularly for people. When you're talking about this in 2010, and SpaceX I don't think it had even done their first demo flight of Cargo to the space station. You could see, let's generously say, "Oh, this is unproven. They have no capability that we can put our entire future of human space flight on. Why should we risk this?"
Casey Dreier: It seems like you had a very confident like, "This is going to work." Or is that too much of a statement of confidence? But you were confident to try it and the risk was worth it. So what, at that point, made you be able to see that do you think in others of your kind of merry band of space pirates? That others, let's say again, just assuming they're acting from good faith, weren't able to see? What gave you that ability to withstand all this hassle, basically, to push this through at that time?
Lori Garver: To me having been involved professionally at that point for like 25 years, there wasn't a lot of controversy within the space community, that what had been held holding us back was the cost of getting to low Earth orbit launching. And throughout the '80s and '90s, I had known many companies and people who'd run at this. And in fact, the head of NASA for 10 years, Dan Goldin had pushed for public-private partnership programs to replace the space shuttle X-33, which was going to lead to VentureStar.
Lori Garver: Really, what came in between was the anomaly. When both, I think O'Keefe and Griffin took us back to cost-plus contracting, and we're going to somehow own and operate the next launch vehicle. That seemed to me to be illogical. And in fact, we had, since Apollo, only developed two human space flight programs and at 10 times the cost that we had predicted. So we were not marred by success in human space flight of doing things the old way. The only way to advance in a way that had the potential to reduce costs and to increase reliability and open space in ways so many of us feel we needed to was to have a competitive environment.
Lori Garver: I really didn't have my thumb on the scale for SpaceX. They were already by 2010, showing they were the most likely to be able to pull this off. But it was very important we have more than one provider. And I was thrilled when the competition heated up and more people got involved, but I was confident. I was confident it would work eventually. I did not know the time scale, and I also knew we weren't going to want to rely on the Russians. It was just unconscionable to me that you were having members of Congress, people in the aerospace and industry willing to trust the Russians and not our own industry. I found it nonsensical.
Casey Dreier: It's something you said there, just thinking about this idea of performance that we had seen from cost-plus contracting. The way that we've kind of phrased it moving forward with things like CLPS and the human landing system contract is that it's an experiment to try public-private partnerships with these things. But we know how the other alternative has gone. We've run that experiment. We know the outcome, right? And I think you could add SLS and Orion to that list. It didn't surprise, it didn't break anyone's prejudices about cost-plus contracting performance in the last 10 years.
Casey Dreier: Let me maybe put this in a broader context of a question why I'm kind of so interested is like you seem to come into this role as deputy, realizing it was a transformative moment and then being willing to kind of put yourself out there and others, right? It's not just you, as you point out in the book. But you were the most visible kind of person risking what could have been a very easy thing as you point out to kind of a go along to get along, just be agreeable.
Casey Dreier: But really taking the opportunity and ultimately pushing for what was a transformational chain and trying to understand kind of when you approach something like that. And for people listening who see themselves in your role in the future, or approaching a similar situation in their organization about what builds the confidence in both the idea and the ability to withstand the professional and personal fallout that brings you by sometimes being unpopular for an idea you believe in.
Lori Garver: Yeah, for me, it was really about that idea that I believed in. I would like to think I wouldn't have bent my pick on something unimportant or silly or not possible. But this really had decades behind it. And unlike, say in CLPS or some of the things we're trying to do differently now, there was a market for launching stuff certainly. And at least to some extent, people to orbit and leveraging the government's money to advance that capability. I really think it was because I was unencumbered by the benefits that people were receiving, who were bought into that system. It just didn't make sense.
Lori Garver: When I had spent the decades before working with a range of people, Democrats, Republicans. Again, the head of NASA for 10 years, all recognizing this was the way to reduce the costs and truly open space. I didn't ever grow up thinking I would have a role like deputy administrator of NASA. So I took it very seriously. I didn't even think about how long I would have the role, but I was there. You take that oath, I had studied it. And I knew that I just had this unique responsibility to take it on.
Casey Dreier: I want to talk a little bit about the role of the Obama White House, how they approached this. Because what was interesting to me reading the book was you talk about the 2010 NASA budget, or the 2011 NASA budget, I should say, that came out in 2010. This was the one that proposed the big change, right? To cancel Constellation, to go in Commercial Crew.
Casey Dreier: And then also as you point out, and I remember you pointing this out at the time, investing $6 billion additional to the agency for advanced technology development, engine development, stuff that would flow into these kind of contractors centers ultimately anyway. But you point out that NASA hadn't been really involved in defining that plan.
Casey Dreier: A lot of this came from the White House itself, because NASA wasn't aligned with it. It struck me as, and this seemed like... I kind of go, why did this not work around into so much opposition? Was that a mistake? Let's put aside NASA's role in it, and the administrator's role and willing to work along. But the White House must have known of this fundamental restructuring of the space program without getting NASA's full buy-in first. That doesn't seem like great politics to me in terms of strategy.
Lori Garver: Of course, I'm big on acknowledging.. Gosh, if I did it again, I would do these different things. And so there are things that the administration especially, because that's the part I know the best, should have done things a little differently. Beginnings of administrations are unique opportunities for programs like NASA, which are more typically seen as tangential to the overall goals of the administration.
Lori Garver: And I was trying to align NASA with some of the goals of the administration to get larger budgets and to be able to make more progress. I know the space community fears these transitions. But in my view, this is a reality of wanting to spend the public's money. And we went about on the transition team, socializing our report in a way that uniquely flowed into the science and technology goals for the administration.
Lori Garver: As you already stated, we had 60 votes on for the Democrats on The Hill. These were the days when we thought we could get a lot more accomplished than we ended up being able to do. Even so, the real thing that gave them pause was when they did brief Charlie in early January and saw he was not on board. I had been trying to let them know the administrator doesn't really understand or want to do it this way. But you can imagine as a deputy, that was a little difficult.
Lori Garver: Charlie would usually say, "Yeah, that's fine. We can do it." We overlooked the details that the technology program should have had in a more advanced way. Because you said, "Well, you put technology programs out there." And it depends on the research community what you're actually going to do. But in fact, when the budget came out, it didn't look fully baked. And the people within the bureaucracy were quick to say, "We don't recognize it." And then we were really on our heels.
Lori Garver: To me, we should have and could have made this decision earlier. We were very close to being able to give the administration's response to the Augustine committee report that fall. So this would've been... The budget came out in February, this was October. And we were within days of being able to do that when it was the domestic policy council at the White House, I think recognize, "Ooh. If we put this out now, we're going to get some pushback from some of our friends that we don't need as we're developing coalitions for other programs." That's sort of the political capital decision that administrations have to weigh.
Lori Garver: I pushed, I wanted it out earlier. It then would not have been tied to the budget. And if it wasn't tied to the budget, I think we had a better shot at getting The Hill briefed up in more positive ways. Getting The Hills buy-in was something we just failed. I don't know how we get anything other than an F on that. And that was especially discouraging to me because during transition team, I was working closely with The Hill.
Lori Garver: You know, I was meeting with Senator McCloskey. I had breakfast in the congressional offices with Gabby Giffords. And they all recognized there were problems with Constellation. And we were looking at doing a review that The Hill would've proposed. I just so wish I would've pursued that rather than just the administration doing the review, because by then they got dug in on Constellation and weren't open to change.
Lori Garver: Once things are tied to the budget, you really aren't supposed to share that information with The Hill. So we didn't. I of course believe that Charlie had his relationships. He told me he wanted to work The Hill, but he didn't understand it. And I knew, when Senator Nelson called me on the day the budget was released, he was upset. But as I talked him through what we were doing, he seemed to understand. But we were already, as I said, starting on our heels. We were getting overridden by the community that was already feeding off the tens of billions of dollars of contracts.
Casey Dreier: That's kind of the fundamental political problem, right? And do you feel like the original proposal on the 2011 budget tried to solve that politically? I just released this article today, looking at the political reasons of why the SLS is, and just really trying to dispassionately look. And it's basically, it's the Apollo shuttle workforce still. And they needed a home for it. Constellation was that home. As I point out, this all happened in the context of the worst recession in a century. A hundred years. And so it seemed politically just really hard to try to end programs that are designed to create these well-paying jobs for lots of people.
Casey Dreier: And in some ways, I try to flip this around sometimes for this other perspective, is it actually the democratic system working as designed? That these representatives are looking out for their constituents interests over the, let's say the national interests. But their constituents interests who vote them in and out of office and saying it was, "Well, we saw a lot of people who vote for us about to go out of work. We did everything we could to keep them employed." Is that actually democracy? Is there an alignment issue here that's going to be a fundamental challenge politically ever to kind of get rid of that to streamline, let's say, that workforce?
Lori Garver: I think it is not democratic in the sense that as I mentioned like, who is it who benefits? You don't get to select in a democracy, "Oh, we're just going to give these people jobs." If we did that, every member of Congress would give their own constituents jobs. And high-paying jobs, aren't the way you really spread the wealth either. Investing in programs that don't drive technologies, that create innovations that feed back into the economy or don't open new markets. That's the opposite of a democratic outcome.
Lori Garver: This is a socialized outcome in my view. As I've said before, I think I kept from saying that actually in the book, but the issue of single members of Congress dictating where contracts go based on their own constituencies is not how the system is supposed to work. And in my view, the administration's role is to lift that up and share how the nation can benefit from having programs that do drive economic growth, national security, and social good. We never even made that argument against SLS because it was just a transactional deal at that point. And that's not very democratic in my view.
Casey Dreier: This is to me a fascinating tension though. Because the incentives of this democratic system we have that exist in the US fully align with this outcome, right? That the people who are... Like the Bill Nelsons in Florida, they're representing their constituents. They're the ones who vote them in and out of office. And so they could argue, "We're just looking out for," let's say, "10,000 jobs in Florida." That could be the extent of their argument. Like their local representation is representing them at a federal level and does everything they can to kind of bring those resources back.
Casey Dreier: I don't disagree with anything you say about the broader value of it to the nation. But that to me is the tension. You see this all the time in like the defense authorization act and a lot of aerospace event. I mean, again, you talk about Eisenhower's warning against the military industrial complex, that's because it's so enticing to this system that we have.
Casey Dreier: So Commercial Crew worked to lower cost for NASA because you change the incentives for what the contractors are doing. And I look at the geographically distinct areas of political representation with an annual funding process that is ultimately discretionary. And I see incentives that ultimately ensure big projects like this are really, really, really hard to stop. To try to step back from what should or shouldn't be, is that ultimately again the design of the system then? That we incentivize it to overweight local parochial interests over any kind of concept of the national interest.
Casey Dreier: Because I always think about, you walk into Senator Shelby's office in Alabama and say, "Hey, cancel the SLS and give that money to commercial projects that are all based in California," and maybe Texas now. That's not how... They're going to see zero political benefit from that. So how do you change those incentives without having to change the fundamental structure of the American democratic system?
Lori Garver: Yeah. I mean, this is a really interesting question, sort of broader picture dealing with someone like Senator Manchin now, you know?
Casey Dreier: Yeah, Right.
Lori Garver: And I try not to blame Congress as much really because they were playing their role. Someone like Senator Nelson was a different case, because Florida stood to benefit from our plan more than from an SLS. But we just couldn't get him to see it. I mean, if you look at the economy around the Cape now, it's all these new companies that are really putting in energy winning back market share. And that was perfectly clear in 2010, that that was an outcome.
Lori Garver: The time I got yelled at in Senator Nelson's hideaway and the Senate was when Elon was talking about going to Texas. Elon was like, "Okay. So you want him in Florida?" But they got so invested because the particular contractors, they weren't building SLS or Orion in Florida. But back to the Eisenhower case, these were companies already thought they'd won tens of billions of dollars in contracts and letting those go, and as I explained in the book, this termination liability just made it all the harder because these companies were going to feel actual pain if this thing got canceled.
Lori Garver: They were doing their bidding. Contractors, not even just their constituents, but I think part of this is the money in the system. And I think getting the money out of the system is a policy that would enhance democracy, not diminish it of totally unrelated policy issue. It's how I think of policy, what can we do in the country that will allow us to advance in ways that benefit all? And this is not that way. It's not on members of Congress. If we had had aligned leadership at NASA, this could have been so simply explained. We could have had a competition for the heavy-lift booster and let all these companies participate.
Lori Garver: I think why people on the outside, and you are one of the people who've articulated it very well. We want to get these things done in space. And Mike Griffin was one too. Hey, it works to put them in people's districts, get a big program and then it can't be canceled. But the truth is there is another way. And that is to have leaders at the agency who absolutely can communicate with the public and the elected leadership in ways that show the true value of what we're doing. And that connect with the meaning of the majesty of the robotic exploration, the economic vitality that is infused because of our investments and the glory and soft power of human space flight.
Lori Garver: We have not had that kind of leadership in a while, sad to say, for the nation, much, much less NASA. But I, having been so close, see that it is possible and remain optimistic that it doesn't have to just be, "Oh, let's scratch this back so they'll scratch ours and put work in a bunch of different districts." The public wants to see the wonderful results of things like the Webb telescope. And I don't think our reaction should be, "Oh, good. So let's spend another 15 years and $10 billion to do the next one." We should be able to build on these successes in ways that convey and can return that value more efficiently.
Casey Dreier: Well, that's the interesting question though. And you referenced these public polling that I've seen. And I think it's really important for people to see that you poll the public about what NASA should be doing. And it's climate science, NEO detection, fundamental science research. Going to the moon of Mars is at the very, very bottom. But you can almost take that poll and then invert it, and that's for the amount of money spent in all those programs, right? It's inverse relationship almost.
Casey Dreier: At the end of the day, I think people are correctly sussing out that the public just doesn't pay that much attention. And do you feel like that's a consequence of the performance we've had for the last 50 years from the space program that people are just generally checked out? Because it feels like that kind of contractor capture, right? If maybe I can summarize how you're summing up this. The over-representation of lobbying aerospace companies in this equation happens when people aren't paying super close attention to it. Is it possible to change that and would that make it better necessarily?
Casey Dreier: This is funny because I'm younger than you and I sound like the grizzled cynical political here. But it strikes me as sometimes when you get really broad public attention to a problem, it doesn't actually help its solution. It actually creates more ranker and partisanship based on the systems and incentives again that we have. And so part of me sometimes like, "Let NASA slide underneath the radar a little bit so it can focus on what it needs to do for longer and let these general interests generally push it in the overall right direction even if the process is inefficient." Is that just a function of the system we have?
Lori Garver: Yeah.
Casey Dreier: So there's like eight questions in there, but I think following up of the role of the public and how do you build a constituency that cares about that?
Lori Garver: Yeah. I would flip the question around how do you do things that the constituency cares about? So it isn't really our performance as much as driven by what we're doing. As I say in the book, we're putting the cart before the horse, and the horse is the nation and the national interest. That isn't driven by polling. But yes, it should be driven by more than a couple of key members that are head of committees because of their own self-interest.
Lori Garver: So to me, we were at our best. And NASA really overperformed when our interests were in line with a national purpose and to advance a national purpose. And within that, NASA was given a direct responsibility. So to me, that is what we have been missing. We sort of got it from Nixon. I think that purpose of reducing the cost of space transportation was the right one, but it wasn't eloquent. It wasn't something NASA wanted to deliver on frankly. And so they built what they did and ignored that.
Lori Garver: I think we've been ignoring everything that spend hold. We should be doing that is of value like that. Only lighting on it when they say something we like, "Oh, we're going to moon. Oh, we're going to Mars." But we're not really. And fundamentally, the public didn't support those things or give them enough funding. Because we have said all along, we could do it for less than we really can and then we don't deliver.
Lori Garver: We are in this cycle now to bring this back. And I think it's an uncontrolled experiment. We once again have told people we're going to the moon. I don't know about you. Not too many people outside the space community that I know have heard of Artemis. And when they do, they don't care very much. How is it that we have gotten to a point where NASA's goals are so distanced from the nations? And yet we have this little echo chamber we're living in where we believe it's the most important thing ever. Everybody's writing me today, "The invitations went out, are you going to be at the SLS launch?" Who knows what an SLS is?
Casey Dreier: Hopefully on August 29th. Because I have plane tickets, but yeah. Yeah, it's-
Lori Garver: And if they did, would they want to spending this much money on it?
Casey Dreier: Yeah.
Lori Garver: I mean, I think we have gotten away with doing what we're doing because there hasn't been this broad public engagement. And I fear that when there is, we aren't going to be showing our best face on it.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Well it's interesting though because I mean you bring up Apollo of course. That's when it aligned with national interest of course. And we obviously we see the resource allocation associated with that, but it didn't mean it was politically or publicly popular, right? You've seen those same articles from Roger Launius showing that less than half of the public forever, except for maybe the week after Apollo 11 landed, thought that it wasn't worth it, wasn't worth the cost. That suggests that there's a fundamental disconnect because it is, by definition, a relatively abstract distant kind of a behavior that most people don't have familiarity with.
Casey Dreier: So I guess I would challenge the hypothesis a bit, which is can NASA be presented as something that's relevant and then will people then care from it? Question my models, for example, let's use this as an example. A lot of the public-private commercial hypothesis is based on the fact that we can increase access to space and make it more accessible to people can do more things. And also I think what we've seen is the number of people who are drawn into the space sector has greatly diversified, particularly with startups and this whole kind of culture of trying things in space.
Casey Dreier: They want to be the next SpaceX or the next Rocket Lab or whatever. And I think we've really seen that develop. But then last year we saw the first commercial suborbital tourism with Branson and Bezos. And I'd say the public reaction to that was far worse than any overrun of the SLS. There's more billionaires in the world than there are astronauts who have ever flown in space, right? So even at that level, it's more broadly accessible but it didn't resonate that way. And I wonder if that challenged your kind of mental models about this approach like, does commercial partnerships actually help people make it more connected? Or do they just see a more... It seemed to create kind of, they're applying a different type of politics to it. And because it hit that level of public awareness, didn't seem to help the space program at all.
Lori Garver: It was frustrating. Still is. I'm glad the timing in the book is what it is because I'm able to explain how those activities were not funded by taxpayers and so forth. They're very separate even than SpaceX and what they're doing. Interviewed yesterday for an article about Elon having to challenge their assumptions about, well, how come he's taking subsidies when it comes to SpaceX, but opposed to them for other, like not a subsidy when he's winning contracts, and at a price point that's saving us money.
Lori Garver: These haven't been well explained. So this is somewhat, again, about leadership. We in the space community are of different minds on these things. And therefore, we don't effectively communicate the value. I think so much of this is in the end state value. NASA tends and the community tends to say that or to equate our success to an increasing budget. And as you've mentioned, obviously Apollo did that. But Apollo actually showed global leadership. And we have had the buying power of about half the level of Apollo since and haven't been able to do that now.
Lori Garver: I also fully believe that the United States is the global leader in space applications, human space flight, et cetera. You don't go anywhere without seeing the NASA logo on people's hats and shirts and the brand. Working for NASA, I have joked I would go work in any role at NASA because it is a great feeling to be part of such an institution that is revered. Marrying that with people don't really know what we're doing, and if they did, it's at the bottom of their priority list is fascinating. And I guess we really need as a nation, as we do with every other part of our government funding, to align our programs with those things that we want to accomplish as a nation. And that's where the break has been for me.
Casey Dreier: I fundamentally agree. And I think what's interesting then is at the same time, as space becomes more socially aware, we're seeing the role of person. Like the privatization aspect, let's just use that as a broad term knowing it's a complicated system. But it ties it to individuals in a way that I think we haven't anticipated the public reaction to.
Casey Dreier: I think you reference this, but I've also been disappointed by Bernie Sanders mischaracterization of HLS funding and contracts. And what it's become to me then is that the more public attention, I guess to my point, like the more it's being misrepresented in a way that the space community's been unable to keep up with and present as a kind of co-factual presentation of information.
Casey Dreier: I think what maybe people are reacting to is instead of a faceless corporation like a Boeing, no one knows who the president of Boeing looks like. You have a face who tweets all the time about sometimes pretty weird stuff of Elon Musk, as an example. It doesn't matter that Elon has saved NASA all this money. It just matters that people have a familiarity that's not based in this kind of broader access of space.
Casey Dreier: So I'm working through this, because I think that it challenges my assumptions too, about what are people really interested in at the end of the day? What do they want out of the space program? And I think a lot of people have been marinated in this idea of space that comes out of movies, like Apollo 13 of these selfless kind of patriotic hero astronauts and NASA managers doing this grand vision and bringing business into it with billionaires almost sullies that in a way. It creates this weird juxtaposition.
Casey Dreier: I fear like that's an inadvertent consequence of commercialization is that it brings down this exalted status. But I mean, the way that you frame it, is that maybe a good thing ultimately? That it becomes more... It's seen not as through this rose colored glasses, but seen as this practical thing that we should have certain expectations for.
Lori Garver: Well, I agree. For me, it was an unforeseen consequence. These billionaires taking on these personas that now are shaping views about the space program. Again, in the 1990s, when we were looking to have a private sector partnership follow on shuttle, it was not envisioned. These would be companies led by billionaires, lucky one. Competitors were Boeing and Rockwell.
Lori Garver: Having people be able to have such wealth and then having their interest in space was not foreseen. Many of us looked at it like entirely positive thing in the beginning and see now that has had consequences. That for a good segment of the public, some of them grew up in my house, find very distasteful. And I would say in the book, you don't have to like the billionaires to appreciate that these investments have really helped the nation. But that's thin gruel in a society very fixated on the latest tweet.
Lori Garver: To me again, NASA should be focused on how it advances national goals and something like transporting astronauts to and from the space station by a private company. Whether they're owned by Elon Musk or not, is something that allows NASA to spend its time and energy and its unique attributes like those brave astronauts and managers in ways that are more valuable. I don't think we have seen, just as you articulated, a backlash on overspending of SLS or Webb for that matter if they all succeed.
Lori Garver: The SLS might be a different story. Again, only if there is a competitor. And boy, will that be interesting if they both work, right? Because they look very different and so forth, but one may be discounted as mega billionaires creation. That was not the plan initially when I and others had the ideology. But it's earlier than we think. Did you just write about Contact the movie?
Casey Dreier: Yeah.
Lori Garver: And the anniversary? They had sort of a billionaire character. He ends up actually saving the experiment, but is caricatured as something negative. At the time, that was the 1990s. So I say we hadn't envisioned this, but there are people who did. In that case, I think throughout the movie you either feel better about him or the government. And that's probably going to be the case with NASA.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. There's an ambivalence there that I think is a healthy ambivalence. I wanted to touch on something, as we start to wrap up here. You mentioned about NASA not necessarily following types of policy, particularly lowering the cost of space flight that Nixon laid out originally. Your role of course that you had, you considered a directive from the president and the White House in terms of transforming how we approach at least low Earth orbit and launching people into low Earth orbit.
Casey Dreier: But having a difference of opinion, let's say, about the priority of that. So we talk about policy of course all the time. And we talk about policy as if you write it down and then it magically happens. It's implemented, right? And I think the story here that we're getting from your book and from this discussion is that it takes more than just writing good policy for it to happen.
Casey Dreier: You need the people, right? This is the classic I guess personnel's policy argument. Is there a way that we can write policy better, that it has teeth or that it becomes affected as opposed to ignored? You wrote something in a book, I was always surprised that Congress writes in to its funding legislation all the time, NASA shall provide a report within 90 days on such and such.
Casey Dreier: And I just assume NASA always just did some report because it's in the law. But you point out they frequently don't and no one holds them to it. That actually really surprised me like, "Oh, I thought that at least someone would be angry at them for that." But yeah, there's no enforcement mechanism. Can policy be written in a more muscular way or is it always going to be a function interplay between the people who believe in it on the ground to implement it?
Lori Garver: It is like most things, a combination in my view. But yes, the people, their strategies, how they choose to lead, who they involve, the coalitions they build, are as important as selecting the right policies. Basically, it's sort of like selecting policies that benefit the nation is necessary, but not sufficient to getting them passed. And there's also a collegial way we go about our work here in Washington. And people don't want to call out those for having maybe a personal or conflicted interest when the coalition they are developing needs them in some other time.
Lori Garver: So this is a typical way we make our laws in Washington. And I think NASA has at various times done better jobs of building coalitions versus not. But today, society not just do we have to deal with the billionaire backlash, but social media. Different ways of communicating. People who have ideas and can get those views out in front of people without really having the elected positions. To me, we ought to be modernizing our policy mechanisms to take all of this into consideration.
Lori Garver: And again, just very briefly in the end of the book, do I mention some of these concerns I have because even the media and journalists who are involved in space want to personally see it. You're looking forward to your launch down at the end of the month. These are tough issues, because when you look at other national policies that are spending so... I know NASA's budget is less than half a percent, but it's still real money and growing, 25 billion plus. We should have serious discussion about what it is NASA's doing in a way that reveals where there are conflicts, and drives to a better place.
Lori Garver: I think in the beginning, that was easier. And now that we've built up an institution infrastructure, a community, I do compare it to Moneyball a lot of times. Because most long time institutions, even if they're very popular in a way like NASA and baseball are, can always innovate for better. And I'm glad that we were able to do that a bit. I think there is still work ahead.
Casey Dreier: Lori, there's one more thing I wanted to ask you about in broadly relational kind of context to what we're talking about here of personnel's policy and the role of people in implementing good policy, is something that you've done after your time as deputy is create this wonderful fellowship called the Brooke Owens Fellowship. You mind just talking about that and how that fits into this broader theme here, and of next and future leaders of our space program?
Lori Garver: Well, thank you for that. Yes, it does fit in for a number of reasons. Brooke herself was a very important part of the team that put forward these transformative policies. And she died of cancer after battling the disease for five years at the age of 36. So we had talked a lot about the importance of diversity and having different types of people's views and capabilities in the space program.
Lori Garver: So I immediately thought, "Well, let's not let her spirit or her light go out." And with two other colleagues and dear friends of hers, started a fellowship that gives paid internships, mentorship. Creates a cohort of around 40 to 50 now this year. Interns each year, women and gender minorities. We have expanded that to the Patti Grace Smith fellowship, which is for Black collegiate students. And this is their second class.
Lori Garver: To me, again, keeping that end state in mind in order to get the most value from this new vantage beyond our own planet, the atmosphere and beyond, you need all kinds of thoughts and capabilities. And those are brought by bringing in people who have been shut out. We know that this happened at a time when our capability within the space program is expanding as well. So being able to have the fellowship, we now have several hundred alumni and the community have embraced these interns as hosts. They are now getting jobs and making valuable contributions.
Lori Garver: In writing the book, one of the reasons I got right on it was because every year the Brookies, as we refer to them, they refer to themselves now, have all these questions about my own experience, my career, their choices, how did we get where we are in the space community today? And so this is in many respects for them, I of course dedicated to my own family since they've been in it for even longer. But there's just so much, you know that's the exciting thing about space. When I was their age, we were just beginning our exploration beyond earth. And all of that is very rewarding to see them entering the careers at this stage, inhabit all in front of them.
Casey Dreier: Well, Lori, thank you for sharing that. And I recommend anyone who knows a good fit to apply to that fellowship. And you mentioned a few other fellowships in the book, the Patti Grace and also the Matt Isakowitz fellowship too.
Lori Garver: Matt. Yeah, yeah.
Casey Dreier: Really thank you for joining us today. Again, really enjoyed reading the book and thank you for sharing that. Just really interesting part of space history that we're all still living through the consequences of. As I said to you privately, I'll say it, I appreciate the candor and clarity that just rarely seen in a book like this from a person who played such an integral role. So thank you for publishing that and always for coming on the show.
Lori Garver: Thank you for having me. It's always fun to talk to you.
Mat Kaplan: Chief advocate and senior space policy advisor for The Planetary Society, Casey Dreier, talking with his guest, Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA and now the author of her great new book, Escaping Gravity, which we once again highly recommend. Casey, you complimented her for this, I will add to that. It is so refreshing to hear someone so frank, so honest about her own performance, as well as other folks, and incredibly perceptive.
Casey Dreier: It's certainly a unique book and unique to have that perspective as I opened with. It's something that you and I both, kind of live through on the outside. So it's fascinating to fill in these pieces and see how the process works or doesn't work or struggles to work. And again at the end of the day, as she shares in the book, I think sunlight is good for these things. And there's no reason to pretend that these aren't just groups of people with all the failings and frustrations and limitations that individual people have working to try to do something. And that's just the process of politics. Fundamentally, it's not always a pleasant process, but it tends to be better than the alternatives.
Mat Kaplan: Yes, as Winston Churchill said I think. Casey, I think that wraps it up. We will just remind everybody once again, if you're not yet a member of The Planetary Society, please take a look at planetary.org/join, and join our merry band as I have said in the past. Casey, it is a pleasure to have spent some time with you again. And I sure look forward to joining you at the Cape and watching, well, fingers crossed, that big expensive rocket lift off from the pad.
Casey Dreier: I've never seen $4 billion take off in one go before. So it'll be a sight to behold, I'm sure.
Mat Kaplan: That is Casey Dreier. We will be back with another Space Policy Edition, hopefully looking back on the successful Artemis 1 mission when we hit the first Friday in September of 2022. I'm Mat Kaplan, of course hoping that you will join us for the weekly version of Planetary Radio. We have some great stuff coming up for you on that program as well. Thanks for joining us as always. Have a great month, and ad astra.