Ars Technica reported on Monday that former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver claimed, during a panel discussion at the Council for Foreign Relations, that many at NASA are “wary’ of the Mars ambitions of SpaceX’s Elon Musk. While the space agency has yielded low Earth operations to the commercial sector as part of the commercial crew program, it reserves for itself deep space exploration. As with many things that publically come out of Garver’s mouth, this statement has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Garver has attempted to create a legend for herself as a failed reformer who attempted to make changes at NASA as a way to get the space agency to change its old-fashioned ways and accept more partnerships with the commercial sector. She has become since she left NASA, a foe of the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket that the space agency is developing and upon which it depends for its Journey to Mars. She has suggested that she was thwarted by an old boys’ network at NASA that is too set in the ways things were done during Apollo.
The self-assessment of Garver of her tumultuous NASA career is at best incomplete. Garver made enemies in Congress and at NASA, not so much for her efforts to reform the way the space agency did space, but for her role in developing President Obama’s space policy, which included the cancellation of the Bush-era Constellation space exploration program, setting the moon off limits to NASA astronauts, and going all in with commercially operated, government funded spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
A hint that trouble lay ahead happened even before Barack Obama became president when Garver, who was leading Obama’s transition team, publically argued with then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin for 40 minutes over the way the team was being conducted. One thing that irked Griffin, a trained engineer, that no one on the transition team, in his opinion, had the necessary expertise to judge the state of the Constellation program. Garver’s training is in political science.
Fast forward a year later, and the budget for NASA for the following fiscal year mandated the cancellation of the Constellation program. The cancellation was planned in secret with the involvement of Garver, who had already been appointed and confirmed as NASA deputy administrator. The stakeholders in the Constellation program, both the Congress that was paying for it and NASA that was carrying it out, were not consulted in the abrupt change. Their resentment and resistance to the new Obama space policy were as predictable as they were inevitable.
Garver’s aspiration of being “reformer” was compromised by the wide spread belief that she was not serving the interests of NASA or space exploration, but rather the agenda of President Barack Obama, seen as being hostile to space in general. Thwarted, she claims at every turn, she finally resigned to become general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association, becoming a union boss.
Garver’s role in crippling space exploration at NASA is another example of how politics has derailed the best-laid plans of sending people beyond low Earth orbit as detailed in this author’s “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?”
As for Elon Musk’s Mars aspiration, Garver’s statement that people at NASA are “wary” does not pass the laugh test. Musk has made no secret of his desire to found a Mars colony and to spend his twilight years on the Red Planet. But he has been vague about how he intends to carry these plans out, making references to a heavy lift “Mars Colonial Transporter” that would dwarf even the final version of the Space Launch System in lift and size. The MCT is said to be so big that it would likely need a new launch pad for it to blast off from.
Musk will likely have to acquire government funding if he hopes to jump start his Mars program. He would not be launching much of anything to low Earth orbit were it not for fat government contracts. He has credited the commercial crew program and its infusion of cash for saving his company.
In the meantime, despite Garver and other critics, NASA and its contractors are bending metal on the SLS. To cancel the project, its enemies will have to find some alternate way to go to Mars that doesn’t involve platitudes and vaporware, or will have to abandon deep space exploration altogether for the fourth time in American history.