Lori Garver served as Deputy Administrator of NASA from 2009-2013. Her new memoir Escaping gravityabout the struggle to get his colleagues to embrace space contractors like SpaceX and Blue Origin, paints a deeply unflattering picture of NASA’s inner workings.
“I told an honest — some would say brutally honest — story about an agency that I love,” Garver says in episode 522 of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “NASA has a club vibe. It’s kind of a ‘the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.’ I am definitely breaking the rules by speaking out – the unwritten rules.”
In recent decades, NASA has been plagued by missed deadlines and cost overruns. Garver says that in many cases, the people promoting these programs knew their budgets were unrealistic. “I just don’t believe that the people who designed these programs thought they could do them within those volumes,” she says. “I think they sold something that they thought someone else would buy and that made their contracts float, and then no one wants to cancel contracts because it’s jobs in your district. The whole thing is a very pleasant operation.”
Garver also describes an attitude of entitlement at NASA, with many in the organization unwilling to ask tough questions about whether their expensive programs serve the public interest. “People come to NASA who are engineers and scientists,” she says. “They don’t have any kind of background in public policy or economics, and they don’t really understand why it matters. They say, ‘We want to walk on the moon. I grew up wanting to walk on the moon.’ OK, but does the public owe you? Not questions they were used to hearing, and they didn’t like hearing them either.”
Garver’s proposal to partner with SpaceX eventually passed, saving taxpayers billions of dollars, but she says a lot of hard work still needs to be done. “We’ve done this at NASA, they were able to embrace change, which is very difficult in a government system,” she says. “Not all of NASA has changed yet, and there are many programs in government that could benefit from some of this tough love.”
Listen to the full interview with Lori Garver on episode 522 of the The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (over). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Lori Garver on being released:
I actually got an agent right away, and after a month or so with that agent I realized they were trying to push a book that was different than the one I was writing. They wanted me to talk about UFOs and what did I know about aliens, and I’m like, “Oh, no. Nothing. That’s not going to be the book.” Fortunately, they released me from their contract, and in the meantime, another agent that I had contacted had since gone into publishing. Diversion Publishing led by Scott Waxman. He is a former agent so I went to him directly and didn’t use an agent. So that meant I could not only tell the story I wanted to tell, but also get it out in a shorter period of time than several years, which is typical of publishing. So I was really lucky.
Lori Garver on science fiction:
Science fiction inspired so many of the space leaders in the 1950s and 60s, so it’s been a really important element of the science that’s happened in space since, and I think it continues to inspire people . As I say in the book, it – especially in the early days – tends to be boys. I wasn’t one of those people – at least at first – who was watching Star Trek when I was a child, or read a lot of science fiction. We focus on, I think, a lot of the more masculine-driven science fiction, some of the misogynistic stuff. I recently received The Robert Heinlein Award. It was started 34 years ago and I am the first woman to receive it. So it’s early days, I think, to have a more diverse interest and achievement in our space program, and some of that has to do with science fiction.
Lori Garver on colonizing Mars:
I don’t see us being able to mass produce the kind of stuff we’d need to have a self-sustaining colony as quickly as Elon Musk predicts. I think longer term it’s a very hopeful future, so it’s not a negative thing, it’s just a timing thing. Any transit time to Mars – if you want to stay on Mars, the big question is still how to deal with the radiation. There is no air to breathe, so what kind of structures should you live in? We don’t know how people can survive for the long durations outside our protection Van Allen radiation belt. We don’t know how to transport it in a way that people don’t get irradiated on the way. There are many big challenges there.
Lori Garver on book titles:
When I pitched the book, I gave it the title Billionaires and Bureaucrats: The Race to Save NASA. When the publisher bought it, they immediately said they wouldn’t call it that, and reserved the right to call it whatever they wanted – publishing is such a crazy business, you don’t get to title your own memoir – but they promised we would talk about it. Their working title was Space pirates-“space pirates” are what I call the really perennial ones, probably largely inspired by science fiction people who care about going into space for the long term and sustaining civilization. I kept pushing for another title, especially when they came up with a cover that looked like teenage science fiction to me, and they got a response from their sales team that the book was great, but they thought the title and the cover did not. convey the book’s serious message. They came back and said, “So we’re going to call it Breaking barriers.” I said, “Uh, okay. Can I work on it?” I chimed in Escaping gravityand by then it was late in the game and they said, “Good.”