With the help of Derek Robertson
After decades of “space” being an arena that only governments could afford to play in, a handful of private companies have changed the field by creating reusable, efficient rockets and launching a record number of satellites into orbit.
Along the way, they helped rewrite the deal between federal money and private enterprise.
Lori Garver, who became the agency’s deputy administrator in 2009, spent four years urging the agency to work more closely with private missile companies before resigning shortly after Obama’s second term, frustrated by the lack of progress. In new memoirs “Gravity Escape: My Path to Transform NASA and Start a New Space Age“She is describes how she tried to change one of the most legendary but traditional state scientific institutions.
She was one of Obama’s champions the so-called “commercial space” programunder which NASA bought trips to space from companies such as SpaceX for a fixed fee, such as a taxi.
Today, the changes she envisioned have borne new fruit. Falcon reusable rocket, built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, delivers payloads to orbit 60 times cheaper than a space shuttle. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin ranked dozens of tourists to the edge of space, and two smaller rivals announced plans send your robots to Mars. And SpaceX plans to test its huge starship rocket at the end of this yearwhich, if successful, will lead to even greater changes.
We spoke with Garver, now a venture capital firm advisor, about what she thinks went wrong in space and what is going well now.
The following conversation has been edited for more length and clarity.
What have been the most significant breakthroughs in space technology in the last decade or so?
In the first place, I would put the reusability and reliability of low-orbit space transport. This has been the goal since Shuttle and is finally returning value. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of being able to reduce the cost of this infrastructure.
Space technologies for communication, geopositioning and imaging of the Earth are also rapidly improving significantly. Now we can run more regularly and for less money. The size of satellites has been reduced so much by digitization and all the advantages that have come from other fields such as mobile phones.
You can do more on a small satellite that costs a lot less, and so you get a positive cycle of testing, launching, retesting, trying new things. In the past, a launch has cost a couple of hundred million – you could. If you take the risk of doing something groundbreaking on a satellite, it might not work. This is the cycle that I think has taken over. What causes so many positive breakthroughs.
What do you think they will be like in the next 15 years?
The starship is there. If it works somewhere near expectations, it will be a game changer. It’s hard to imagine what we could do with all these opportunities at the low cost they predict.
I am constantly in awe of what we can do from space that really solves the problems we face here with over 7 billion people on this planet.
We are already seeing early, real-time tracking of greenhouse gas emissions, which could help fuel models that give us a better understanding of the interactions between ice, land, atmosphere, and oceans, allowing us to survive here and limit suffering, allowing us to set policies and treaty checks. where we can really help the world.
You describe SpaceX as having a huge advantageover other missile companies. How and why did he develop this leadership?
For many organizations, it is important to have a very clearly articulated vision and a leader who clearly implements it. In the case of SpaceX, because Elon Musk has a technical background, he can make decisions quickly. Again and again, things came up that usually took the organization weeks or months to solve, but SpaceX could do in hours or days.
Does the book seem to reveal the role of Congress in shaping the space program?
I don’t think there is any doubt that the leadership of a handful of members of Congress has harmed the progress of human spaceflight. They play their part, other players must also play their roles.
They get away with it – in my opinion – because administrations don’t fully communicate what’s going on. We did not communicate our own request for this more innovative, progress-oriented agency, as we should have.
I have been criticized for being unpatriotic and destroying the space program. I wasn’t the head of NASA, and I didn’t have the political cloud to make a difference.
We let them get away with saying that they think about the interests of the nation when they only think about their area.
How would you rate Administrator Biden’s space policy?
We keep kicking the can without addressing the elephant in the room: we have billions of dollars going into human spaceflight programs that are not sustainable in the long run. They started under the Obama administration, and Trump kept them, too.
The beginning of administration is always a time when you have the opportunity to dig around and see if what is written in the books makes sense. We didn’t seize that opportunity in the Biden administration. We did this in the Obama administration and made only partial progress. I understand that they did not want to become me. But you know, someone has to do it.
Last week we reported on the likelihood that a major technology competitiveness bill going through Congress, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, in danger of being abandoned in exchange for a more narrowly targeted bill to support U.S. chip manufacturing.
This could see the National Science Foundation miss out on a major planned increase, which included funding and infrastructure support for technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and more. But not so fast: as POLITICO’s Brendan Bordelon told the professionals in today’s Morning newslettersome Republicans say a “skinny” bill may not be enough.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) told reporters yesterday that the bill should include technology centers and investments from the National Science Foundation. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Ms.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill, said he was “strongly opposed” to cutting the NSF bill’s provisions. (Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed his willingness to put more funding back into the bill, anticipating more drama in the congressional wardrobe.)
In my conversation with Dan Correa, CEO of the Federation of American Scientists, last week, he argued that cutting the NSF funding under consideration could lead to failure, even if the goal is simply a more targeted chip manufacturing bill.
“This is a shorter-term set of investments than would be possible with a broader package that would encourage agencies to build a more comprehensive ecosystem around next-generation semiconductor technologies.” – Derek Robertson
Stay in touch with the entire team: Ben Schrekinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson[email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes (ur.[email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us on Twitter @DigitalFuture.