Space Commerce

Book Review: Escaping Gravity: “My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age” By Lori Garver

By Keith Cowing
June 24, 2022
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Book Review: Escaping Gravity: “My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age” By Lori Garver
Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age
Lori Garver

Lori Garver has a new book out titled “Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age” which explains much of how space exploration and utilization is being done in the third decade of the 21st century. But how did we get here? She explains. She was there.
This past weekend commercial outfit SpaceX launched three successful Falcon 9 rockets in less than 36 hours. They all utilized previously used first stages that will be reused yet again. The two richest people on Earth are pouring billions of their own money into space companies while racing one another to various places across the solar system. Astronomers are now starting to complain that there will soon be so many satellites in the sky as to confuse people who look up to stargaze.

This did not just happen. It was not inevitable by any means. People had to put their jobs, reputations, fortunes, and family life on the line to help beat back the status quo inertia of government-only mindset. At the top of the list of those who pushed long and hard to reform the way NASA does things was Lori Garver.

The status quo that has held the true potential of space utilization back for decades is composed of Big Aerospace, companies entrenched self-interests in Congress, is tied to a series of constantly pivoting and disinterested White House teams – with an older male ruling class thwarting outsiders who try and change things. Did I miss anything?

One of the strange things Lori and other commercial space proponents had to navigate had to do with political re-polarization on the whole topic of space commerce. Whereas congressional Republicans had always held to their party’s core notion of the private sector being the best way to do things and that Big Government was ill-equipped to do so – and the opposite notion traditionally held by Democrats, that whole symmetry was upset.

Since the (Democratic) Obama Administration was pushing commercial space congressional Republicans opposed commercial efforts. As such, funding for commercial crew and cargo being diverted to the congressionally mandated, big government SLS program year after year. Democrats were new to the whole notion of pushing for a more enlightened and efficient private sector and Republicans found themselves defending big, bloated government mandated programs – because the Dems were for the opposite approach. What a fine mess.

To make things worse, Garver (and many others) were constantly confronted with Charlie Bolden’s refusal to either adhere to direction from the White House – or even bother to seek it out in the first place. As such when it came time to stand up for the Obama Administration’s push for commercial budget items in Congress, Bolden never devoted 100% to the defense – leaving Garver alone as the senior most proponent for commercial space at NASA. And she was Number Two – not Number One – at NASA.

Among the biggest supporters of the SLS – the “Senate Launch System” as Garver and others referred to it – was Senator Bill Nelson. To Nelson and his Big Aerospace backers the SLS was the only way to keep the folks back home in Florida happily employed as the Shuttle program wound down. Nelson saw the nascent commercial space efforts NASA had been pushing – with the most prominent contractor being SpaceX – to be a direct threat to the status quo. Garver saw the commercial sector as the only way to inject fresh thinking and cost consciousness into the whole process of putting people and things into space.

As such the lines were drawn within NASA, Congress, Big Aerospace and the so-called “NewSpace” communities. Eventually SpaceX and Orbital both showed that they could not only do the heavy lifting – they were flexible and able to bounce back from setbacks with much more resilience than NASA ever could. Indeed, SpaceX ran with the opportunity and created a reusable launch capability that NASA has never created on its own.

Alas, if you listen to them now, both Charlie Bolden and Bill Nelson enthusiastically crow about the value of commercial space you’d be excused for not knowing that they were against it – before they were for it – as we say here in Washington.

Lori Garver regularly locked horns with Bill Nelson. Bill Nelson has always wanted NASA to do what Bill Nelson wanted NASA to do. This started in the 1980s when he was a Congressman and used his influence to worm his way into a seat on a shuttle mission – with crew mates Bob Cabana and Charlie Bolden. Years later when the Obama Administration had settled on Steve Isakowitz as their choice to be NASA Administrator, with Lori as Deputy, Nelson exerted his influence and got the top job for Charlie Bolden instead. Few people were surprised to see Nelson pull this trick again to get the Administrator’s job at NASA when Joe Biden had other people in mind.

I don’t want to simply portray Lori’s book as being her against the old boys – BUT – this Big Aerospace patriarchy that Lori Garver as a woman had to deal with was – and is – quite real – and entrenched.

Lori and I both arrived in Washington at the same time in the 1980s. Reading her book is like reliving the past four decades one policy pivot at a time. Throughout this time Lori had to run the gauntlet multiple times due simply to her gender. I saw this unapologetic, systemic misogyny up close at NASA as both a civil servant and as a support contractor. Things got better as Lori moved up the ranks, but “better” is a relative term. We’ve had four female Deputy NASA Administrators – but we’ve never had a female NASA Administrator. Why is that?

One aspect of Lori’s tenure in and around NASA has been to try and break through the old boys network and elevate the opportunities for women and other sectors of the population at NASA who have been traditionally shut out. Her support for education and public outreach is widely known, Indeed, in full disclosure, Lori tried to get Charlie Bolden to appoint me to the old NASA Advisory Council committee on education and outreach which was chaired by my friend Miles O’Brien. Bolden said no twice. Oh well.

While Lori’s tenure in the space community is often linked to the promotion of space commerce – and trying to get us to become a space faring species, she has had an equally potent impact upon education and increased opportunities for young people, women, members of minority groups and others who usually found themselves passed over. This book is filled with examples where she spent political – and personal – capital to focus on this – often when others could not be bothered to do so. Indeed, there are now hundreds of young people in the space community who can point directly to Lori as an inspiration and an engaged enabler for their careers in the space community.

In a nutshell, if you want a moment-by-moment running commentary of what it was like to be in the trenches with a bunch of space pirates with a true believer at the front of the boarding party, as they tried to change the course of NASA and the space community, then Lori’s book is highly recommended.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.