Q&A: Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver Talks Commercial Space, ‘Bro’ Culture and Her New Book

NASA then-Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin for the dedication of the Spaceport America runway in 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by David Bullock
Staff Writer

Former Deputy Administrator of NASA Lori Garver came out with a new book in June titled, “Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age.” The book is a memoir of her time in the space sector, particularly focused on her time in the Obama Administration where she spearheaded commercialization efforts. Here, we talk about the book and other topics about the government organization and the private sector.

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you want readers to take away from your book?

I think that the value of humans first exploring space was most directly tied to looking back and seeing our home planet and recognizing we are in this together. We often envision space being about just going to somewhere else, but we have learned so much about ourselves and our planet from just going to space. I would like people to recognize that the government program can focus on those priorities and reduce the cost of accessibility to space, so even more people, satellites can go to space for valuable purposes.

How has the move toward commercial space you led helped the U.S. space program?

NASA has always had commercial industry involved in our space program very closely. What we have been starting, decades before, was recognizing the things that are routine about space could be done by the private sector in ways that reduce the cost through innovation and opening new markets. Lowering the cost of space transportation by some of the policies that I helped drive has allowed us to take better advantage of the unique vantage of space and allowed NASA to focus, or should allow even more, NASA to focus on things that are uniquely important to the government.

Do you think that movement has gone far enough? What more needs to be done?

Advances in commercial space have even caused greater economic return to our economy. There are companies involved in all aspects of satellite and services, as well as launching. But of course we’re not complete. One of the things that happened during the time when I was [at NASA], was this grand compromise that created the SLS rocket and kept the Orion capsule and the nation has spent tens of billions of dollars on those programs to do something that really the private sector is prepared to do without those tax dollars. We could have invested that money elsewhere. So we’re not quite there yet. I think NASA needs to evaluate, and I think that NASA is doing this, what about it should be done under different contracting mechanisms to have a more effective and efficient space program.

Is the United States on a sustainable path to return to the moon and send astronauts on to Mars?

That is yet to be seen. I believe that that will happen. But the current programs NASA has in place to do so are not sustainable in my view. Now we have a launch after we’ve invested tens of billions of dollars. Each one will cost on the order of four billion dollars. Maybe even more importantly and disappointingly, this system can only launch once every year or two. And sustain to me means you go and you stay and I think we all felt since Apollo the next time we went… we need to learn more about the ability to utilize lunar resources and have a lunar base at a minimum. Unless we, the country, decide we want to only stay for a week or two for these next visits for only once, every year or two, and to continue to pay these high rates for a rocket that’s based on technology from fifty years ago, we likely won’t be doing it with these current systems.

As I say in the book, luckily, since the dinosaurs as they’ve been devouring the last of the leaves from the high tree tops, the furry mammals, namely the private sector, which has been motivated by, in this case, Elon Musk’s desires to have a sustained human settlement on Mars, they will very likely help the government achieve this by lowering the costs. His Starship vehicle has the potential to do much of this in a sustainable way, if it becomes operational. 

You wrote about the “bro” culture in the U.S. space industry. How does that hurt the industry? How can this be changed?

Women are fifty percent of the population and have not historically had the role models in the leadership at NASA and as many astronauts. I think that we need to do more to encourage a diverse workforce, through not just role models, but having people intentionally recruit women. One of the things I have done is co-found a fellowship for women and gender minorities, who get jobs in industry and mentors. We’ve created a cohort of career people who are now supporting each other.

Women don’t go into engineering at the rates that men do. Lots of people have theories of why that is. One of my theories is that they don’t fully understand, I know I didn’t understand growing up, what an engineer does. Engineering contributes to so much of the valuable things our nation does that we really should better describe that, so it connects to a broader segment of the public than those who were inspired by Apollo.

Richard Branson waves to the crowd as he leads a group toward the podium. From left to right are New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Rick Homans. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

There have been complaints about sexual harassment and racial discrimination at SpaceX and Tesla? What’s your view on this?

I talk a bit in the book about this. Although some it has come about since. Aerospace has notoriously not had a great record of diversity. I am discouraged that some of these newer companies, including SpaceX, are having this behavior in a way that is not valuing their diverse workforce. I say we must be intentional to change this. We do risk losing a huge part of the talent pool. We do risk disenfranchising people whose views and talents we need. I am very hopeful that we could turn this around. We, being the space community, not just SpaceX. 

Is NASA doing enough to encourage the development of private space stations and the cis-lunar economy?

I think NASA is quite focused on this. It’s wonderful to see. I think it’s an important next step. The Space Station has been expensive to operate. The sooner we can lower the operational costs, or in similar to ways of space transportation, the more we can spend doing the valuable research and science on these facilities. I don’t think a huge portion of the budget is yet being spent and that will probably need to change. I know that NASA has got a lot on its plate. But incentivizing new developments of cislunar space for the private sector does seem like it’s one of their priorities at this point.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is given a tour of the Bigelow Aerospace facilities by the company’s President Robert Bigelow on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011, in Las Vegas. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Do you think NASA is doing enough for climate change currently?

NASA has, through their own research, contributed so much critical information to understanding what is happening with our climate and how these changes and interactions between the atmosphere, the sea, ice and land affect us all. In my view, this should be prioritized even further. NASA has well done the job of studying this, but probably could do even more to advance sensors that can measure greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, with higher fidelity and then really attracting the best and the brightest of the scientists to help the world adapt to what we know we can’t reverse, as far as change, to limit human suffering.

Also, I think there are creative programs that could because NASA is an important and popular government agency do things like sponsor a climate core where satellite data is utilized in local communities to help with adaptation. Also we could do more, as I’ve said, to measure greenhouse gases and having the ability to reenforce treaty verification, have us be able to monetize carbon emissions. Satellite are an integral part of our future as we learn to eliminate and adapt to climate change. I believe NASA is a key part of that. I think it could be even further prioritized, but I do see them working on it more and more.

What are you currently working on?

My book came out a week ago. I’ve been doing lots of interviews. I am still a volunteer at the Brooke Owens Fellowship, that I spoke of and we have our big summit coming up—the first in-person one in a couple of years. I am working on that. I’m a Senior Fellow at Harvard-Kennedy’s School Belfer Center, so I am occasionally teaching and working with students in government policy. I am on the board of Hydrosat, which is a startup satellite company working on developing a constellation of satellites that can measure the stress due to hydrology changes in agriculture. I am an executive in-residence at Bessemer Venture Partners helping advise them on space investments. So, I have a few irons in the fire.

What advice would you give to future space policy professionals?

I think we need to remember that we should elevate these decisions to address a purpose that is bigger than just the space community. It’s for too long been about keeping the mouths fed which are in the business instead of lowering the cost and deepening the participation for people and organization beyond what it already is. NASA is not an organization that’s in the Constitution. We don’t just have inherent value. Our value as aligned with the Space Act of 1958—that’s really our origination document—needs to be advancing the public welfare and doing that is our higher purpose. It is not just doing the things we like doing, ourselves.