Reviewed by: Rod Pyle
Title: Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age
Author: Lori Garver
NSS Amazon link for this book
Publisher: Diversion Books
Date: June 2022
Retail price: $28.99/$17.99
Lori Garver begins her NASA tell-all by citing a conversation with the putative presidential nominee Barack Obama in 2008, just prior to her tenure as the NASA Deputy Administrator. Obama asked her if she agreed with the idea of extending the space shuttle program into the next decade and she unreservedly replied, “No,” continuing on to explain that while the shuttle program had been “the most visible part of NASA,” it had never fulfilled its stated purpose—to lower launch costs and assure routine access to space safely and reliably—and that it was dated and unreliable technology. When asked what she would advise instead, she told him—and thus began her sometimes tumultuous, and always transformative, career as the number two boss at NASA.
Garver’s career in the space industry began congenially enough, when she worked her way up to the role of executive director of the National Space Society in the 1980s after working for then-senator John Glenn from 1983-84. Her tenure at NSS extended through 1998, when she accepted the role of Associate Administrator of the Office of Policy and Plans at NASA—her first inside look at the space agency. It was a telling precursor to her later role as Deputy Administrator. Garver has been a pivotal force in modern spaceflight, and the ups and downs of that journey are well related in this no-holds-barred book.
The ”space industrial complex,” as she unflinchingly calls NASA and its then-cozy cadre of aerospace companies, needed disruption—and she felt it was her responsibility to begin that process. Potential readers should note that this is not a book that supports warm memories that many still cherish of gleaming rockets and heroic astronauts—it’s somewhat of a tell-all that reveals the less appetizing side of a government agency operating past its prime and in need of reinvigoration. Notably, Garver had spent time adjacent to the nascent commercial spaceflight sector (first as president of Capital Space, followed by a role as a senior advisor for space at the Avascent Group, a strategy and management consulting firm) in the early 2000s. She had now seen both sides of the equation and had some profound ideas about how change should come about. Her tenure as the NASA Deputy Administrator was predicated on advising thee presidential candidates on space, rounding out her knowledge of government and high technology. Or, as she puts it, “I’d spent my twenty-five-year career training to be prepared for such an assignment, and although my background was different from everyone who had been in the position before, I believed that was a positive feature and not a bug.” It may have been this “positive feature” that allowed her to spot the potential of the emerging newspace industry, in which rising stars such as Elon Musk were just beginning to gain traction. She liked what she saw—the potential to transform how America did spaceflight. Not everyone agreed with her assessment, however, and the pushback began almost immediately upon her assignment as the second in command at NASA.
It is perhaps not surprising that she made some enemies in short order—besides supporting the cancellation of the shuttle, she leveled criticism at the Constellation program, intended to return Americans to the Moon, which was behind schedule and well over budget. But cancelling Constellation would impact powerful aerospace contractors—and their political representatives—across the country. By the time Constellation was cancelled on her watch, with subsequent recommendations of contracting out routine spaceflight operations to private spaceflight operators, her detractors included such space luminaries as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men to walk on the Moon, and people she had idolized. She even butted heads with Charlie Bolden, her boss at NASA, and earned the ire of both sides of the Congressional aisle. Bill Nelson, the current NASA administrator who was then serving in the Senate (and who now wholeheartedly embraces the newspace companies), said that these choices would be the “death knell for human spaceflight in the United States.” There was even an alleged death threat against Garver in the mix.
The path to the modernization of NASA would be neither easy nor pretty, and would offer few friends in government, but she felt there was no other realistic road ahead if success were to be achieved. The case she was making was extra challenging due to the fact that the nascent newspace companies that would lead this transformation were yet to hit their stride, and her commitment to the cost-reducing competition they would bring to the table required both faith and vision.
She likens the transformation of NASA and its way of doing business to a scene she enjoyed in the movie Moneyball, in which the actor playing the owner of the Red Sox tells the team manager “the first guy through the wall…always gets bloody,” and this became her mantra. With that sentiment in mind, she began to engineer a revolution in how America does space.
As her changes began to settle in, her many detractors let their displeasure be known, loud and clear. Garver pulls few punches in the text, guiding us through some of these battles. On her side were the individuals she termed the “space pirates”—people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and a handful of others, who have changed spaceflight in ways many could scarcely have imagined in 2010. The path was not a smooth one—Congress underfunded the initial efforts to commercialize routine space operations for years. But as we have seen, and as her former critic Nelson has now come to embrace, Garver’s instincts were correct, and the long game has borne fruit. By NASA’s own estimates—depending on what part SpaceX’s launch system you analyze—the new relationship has saved the American public between 50 and 90 percent for the past few years. That amount will only increase over time.
Perhaps the Moneyball quote sums up the main theme of this book perfectly. The allegory fits aerospace as well as it does baseball, as the team owner continues: “This is threatening not just a way of doing business…but in their minds, it’s threatening the game. Really what it’s threatening is their livelihood, their jobs. It’s threatening the way they do things…and every time that happens, whether it’s the government, a way of doing business, whatever, the people who are holding the reins—they have their hands on the switch—they go batshit crazy.” Fortunately, the worst of the craziness has ebbed, NASA is modernizing, and we can see the benefits echoed throughout America’s spaceflight endeavors. This book gives you an insider’s look at how that transformation began.
© 2022 Rod Pyle
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