‘Escaping Gravity’ Takes a Brutally Honest Look at NASA

Lori Garver served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013. Her new memoir Escape from gravityabout the struggle to get his colleagues to embrace space entrepreneurs like SpaceX and Blue Origin, paints a deeply unflattering picture of NASA’s inner workings.

“I told an honest story, some would say brutally honest, about an agency that I love,” Garver says in episode 522 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast “NASA has a clubby atmosphere. It’s kind of “the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.” I’m breaking the rules, sure, speaking out loud, 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 these programs knew their budgets were unrealistic. “I don’t think the people who designed these programs believed they could do them within these amounts,” he says. “I think they sold something that they thought somebody else would buy, and that made their contracts flow, and then nobody wants to cancel the contracts, because they’re jobs in your district. The whole thing is a very welcoming operation.”

Garver also describes an attitude of entitlement at NASA, with many members of the organization unwilling to ask hard questions about whether or not its expensive programs serve the public interest. “People come to NASA who are engineers and scientists,” he says. “They have no training in public policy or economics, and they really don’t see why it matters. They say, “We want to walk on the moon.” I grew up wanting to walk on the moon.’ OK, but does the public owe you? Don’t ask questions they were used to hearing, nor did they like hearing them.”

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

Listen to the full interview with Lori Garver on episode 522 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (on top). And check out some of the highlights from the discussion below.

Lori Garver on the post:

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 I knew about aliens, and I said, “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 I had contacted had started posting. Diversion Publishing is directed by Scott Waxman. He’s a former agent, so I went straight to him and didn’t use an agent. This meant that not only could I tell the story I wanted to tell, but I could also publish it in a shorter time frame than a few years, which is typical of publishing. So I was very lucky.

Lori Garver on Science Fiction:

Science fiction inspired a lot of the space leaders of the 1950s and 1960s, so it’s been a really important element of the science that’s transpired in space ever since, and I think it continues to inspire people . As I say in the book, this, especially in the early days, tends to be boys. I wasn’t one of those people, at least in the beginning, who watched Star Trek when I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction. We focus, I think, on a lot of the more masculine science fiction, some of it misogynistic. I recently received the Robert Heinlein Award. It started 34 years ago and I am the first woman to receive it. So I think it’s early days to have 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 kind of things we would need to have a self-sustaining colony as quickly as Elon Musk predicts. I think in the long term, this is a very hopeful future, so it’s not a negative thing, it’s just a matter of time. Any Mars Transit Time: If you’re going to stay on Mars, how you’re going to handle the radiation is still a big question. There is no air to breathe, so what kind of structures will you live in? We don’t know how people can survive for these long durations outside the protection of our Van Allen radiation belt. We don’t know how to transit it so that people can’t be irradiated along the way. There are a lot of big challenges there.

Lori Garver on book titles:

When I presented the book, I gave it a title 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 whatever they wanted—publishing is such a crazy business, you can’t title your own memoir— , but we were promised. I would talk about it. His job title was space pirates—”Space pirates” are what I call long-time people, probably heavily inspired by science fiction, who care about going into space for the long term and maintaining civilization. I kept pushing for a different title, especially when they came out with a cover that looked like teenage sci-fi to me, and got a response from their sales teams that the book was great, but they thought the title and cover weren’t were convey the serious message of the book. They came back and said, “So we want to call it Breaking Barriers.” I said, “Um, okay. Can I work on this?” It occurred to me Escape from gravityand by then it was late in the game and they said, “Okay.”

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