‘Escaping Gravity’ Takes a Brutally Honest Look at NASA

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Lori Garver served as deputy administrator of NASA from 2009-2013. Her new memoir Escaping Gravity, about the struggle to get her colleagues to embrace space entrepreneurs like SpaceX and Blue Origin, paints a deeply unflattering picture of the inner workings of NASA.

“I did tell an honest—some would say brutally honest—story about an agency that I do love,” Garver says in Episode 522 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “NASA has a clubby atmosphere. It’s a bit of a ‘the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.’ I’m breaking the rules, for sure, by speaking out—the unwritten rules.”

In recent decades NASA has been plagued by missed deadlines and cost overruns. Garver says that in many cases the people who promoted those programs knew that their budgets were unrealistic. “I just don’t believe that the people who designed those programs believed that they could do them within those amounts,” she says. “I think they sold something that they thought someone else would buy, and that got their contracts flowing, and then no one wants to cancel contracts, because these are jobs in your district. It’s all a very cozy operation.”

Garver also describes an attitude of entitlement at NASA, with many in the organization being unwilling to ask hard questions about whether or not their costly programs serve the public interest. “People come to NASA who are engineers and scientists,” she says. “They don’t have any kind of background in public policy or economics, and they don’t really see why that matters. They’re like, ‘We want to walk on the moon. I grew up wanting to walk on the moon.’ OK, but does the public owe you that? Not questions they were used to hearing, nor did they like to hear them.”

Garver’s proposal to partner with SpaceX was eventually adopted, saving taxpayers billions of dollars, but she says that a lot of hard work still needs to be done. “We have done this thing at NASA, they were able to embrace change, which is very hard in a government system,” she says. “Not all of NASA is yet changed, and there are many programs in the government that could benefit from some of this tough love.”

Listen to the complete interview with Lori Garver in Episode 522 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Lori Garver on getting published:

I actually got an agent right away, and after a month or so with that agent, I realized they were trying to push a book that was different than what I was writing. They wanted me to talk about UFOs and what did I know about aliens, and I’m like, “Oh, no. Nothing. That’s not going to be the book.” Fortunately they let me out of their contract, and in the meantime another agent that I had contacted had since gone into publishing. Diversion Publishing is headed by Scott Waxman. He’s a former agent, and so I went directly to him and didn’t use an agent. So that meant I could not only tell the story I wanted to tell, but also get it out within a shorter period of time than several years, which is typical for publishing. So I got really lucky.

Lori Garver on science fiction:

Science fiction inspired so many of the space leaders in the 1950s and ’60s, so it’s been a really important element of the science that has transpired in space since, and I think it continues to be inspiring to people. As I say in the book, that does—in the early days especially—tend to be boys. I was not one of those people—at least initially—watching Star Trek when I was a kid, or reading a bunch of science fiction. We focus on, I think, a lot of the more masculine-driven science fiction, some of it misogynistic. I recently received the Robert Heinlein Award. It was started 34 years ago, and I’m the first woman to have received it. So these are early days, I think, for having a more diverse interest and achievements in our space program, and some of that has to do with science fiction.

Lori Garver on colonizing Mars:

I don’t see us being able to mass produce the kinds of things that we would need to have a self-sustaining colony as quickly as Elon Musk predicts. I think over the longer term, that’s a very hopeful future, so it’s not a negative thing, it’s just a timing thing. Any transit time to Mars—if you’re going to stay on Mars, it’s still a big question about how are you going to manage the radiation. There’s no air to breathe, so what kind of structures are you going to live in? We do not know how people can survive for those long durations outside the protection of our Van Allen radiation belt. We don’t know how to transit it in a way that allows people not to be irradiated on the way. There are a lot of big challenges there.

Lori Garver on book titles:

When I pitched the book, I titled it Billionaires and Bureaucrats: The Race to Save NASA. When the publisher bought it, they immediately said they wouldn’t call it that, and reserved the right to call it what they wanted—publishing is such a crazy business, you don’t get to title your own memoir—but they promised we’d talk about it. Their working title was Space Pirates—”space pirates” are what I call the really long-time, probably largely-inspired-by-science fiction people who care about going out into space over the long term and sustaining civilization. I kept pushing for a different title, especially when they came up with a cover that looked to me like teenage science fiction, and they did get a response from their sales teams that the book was terrific, but they thought the title and cover did not convey the serious message of the book. They came back and said, “So we want to call it Breaking Barriers.” I said, “Um, OK. Can I work on that?” I came up with Escaping Gravity, and by then it was late in the game and they said, “Fine.”


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