Former NASA official tries to stop SLS: 'There is such a clear hostility'

Former NASA official tries to stop SLS: ‘There is such a clear hostility’

Former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver published a book earlier this year, escape gravitywhich tells the story of her nearly three years in U.S. space policy.

Over the past 15 years, Garver has played an important and sometimes controversial role in NASA’s history, serving as head of President Obama’s transition team on space issues in late 2008 and early 2009, and later as the space Deputy Director of the Bureau until 2013.

At NASA, she had a strained relationship with the agency’s administrator, Charlie Bolden. Garver pushed for major change at the request of the Obama administration and made more investment in the commercial space industry; while Bolden was more pro-traditional space and represented the views of many at NASA at the time who were opposed to change. Bolden and his allies won the battle, securing NASA’s development of the Space Launch System rocket.

Her book is especially timely given that the SLS rocket is expected to launch for the first time on Monday. That’s because a lot of her stories focus on the politics surrounding building big rockets, and one of the book’s main antagonists is former Florida Senator Bill Nelson, now a NASA administrator and rocket legislator champion.

I spoke with Garver this week about the upcoming SLS rocket launch. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

Ars: NASA has a long way to go to make this launch happen. Given what you’ve been through, how do you feel about the upcoming Artemis 1 mission?

Garver: I’m nervous about publishing. I hope it goes well because all these people are working on it. I hope they are satisfied with their contribution. NASA will get a lot of visibility. But I do think that as the public starts paying attention, they’re going to have a lot of questions. So far, I don’t think people outside of our community really know what’s going on.

Ars: I think one question a lot of people may have is why the next Artemis mission might be two to three years away.

Garver: Yes, there are a lot of questions. cost to get here. When Apollo became more routine, why wasn’t the next few years? Then, of course, the biggest variable will be Starship. There will definitely be comparisons, although as you know it shouldn’t be any kind of competition.

Ars: What are some memorable anecdotes in your book about the policy discussions that led to the SLS rocket?

Garver: It was September 2011, the day before they had a big press conference showing the SLS design. We meet in the office of Senator Hutchison (Ke Bailey of Texas). Charlie (Boulden, NASA administrator) and I were there. Jack Lew of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Senators Hutchison and Nelson (Bill of Florida) and their staff. We sat there, admonished by Senators Hutchison and Nelson — we were in the government — to propose a program for human spaceflight that would lead to great destruction. The senators have shown such obvious hostility towards us. As I described in the book, I said we had a full house and they had a couple of two and we left the table. They are bullies and they hold us back. The next day, they launched it. They had a large poster of the artist’s depiction of the SLS vehicle, which I knew at the time was done through a NASA purchase the day before. During the press conference, I did have to stand against the wall. I can’t believe we would do this.

Ars: Why are you so shaken? Don’t you think the rocket can be built in five years, or the promised price is $10 billion?

Garver: I think 5 years, and $10 billion, was too much to begin with, and we couldn’t even do it. If I knew it was more like 12 years, or even twice as long, I might not even be able to lean against the wall quietly. But I don’t know what else I should do. To this day, I still don’t know if my boss, Charlie, was involved in the whole deal early, or if he just dragged his feet. I really think the meeting with the senator was probably just going to burn me because I think Charlie was involved as well. I think it’s stupid because, you know, I didn’t vote to overthrow the Senate. My problem is that the whole point of the space program is to align with national goals. So it would be incorrect to have a handful of senators designate rocket programs to contractors who have proven they can’t deliver.

Ars: The House and Senate have been staunch supporters of SLS since then. What do you think Congress needs to reassess this posture?

Garver: I think there are two cases, or a mix of the two. An important issue is that SpaceX’s Starships operate regularly at a lower cost. I mean, NASA is clearly helping to make that happen. But their line has always been, “Oh, but it’s not going to be rated as a launch by humans.” Well, well, if it’s flying a lot of people, when does that become a really embarrassing statement? And it’s all about flight speed. If Starship launches dozens of times a year like Falcon 9 and SLS every two years, it will inevitably become awkward. The second scenario is that SLS is not going well. I think that’s what a test flight is, it’s a test flight. This delightful talk about it being done – just look at the language of the launch, the festivities, NASA’s plans, and more. If this is not perfect, there are no plans for another test flight. So what? If the first one doesn’t go well, will you have people in one in two years? I just never heard anyone talk about this plan. It’s probably a combination of these things rather than a perfect test flight and a starship flight, which I think is the scenario that led to the demise of the SLS.

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