Lori Garver, like an unquiet ghost, emerged from obscurity with a Tuesday op-ed in Space News on the subject of presidential transitions and NASA. Most of the piece is self-serving, and somewhat one-sided account of her role as the head of the 2008 transition team for President-Elect Obama for the space agency. Nevertheless, the article has some insights that will be useful for whoever handles the transition for the next president, whomever he or she might be.
Most telling is her account of how the managers of the then Constellation program reacted to the attention by the Obama transition team.
“Unfortunately, the 2008 transition would be different. Despite the chilly reception on the 9th floor, we kept shoulder to the wheel gathering information and writing our reports. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released two months before the 2008 election highlighted the shuttle-to-Constellation transition as a top challenge, so we were asked to focus on human spaceflight specifically. This was made more difficult when the Constellation team was the only program unwilling to share detailed information. The Ares launch vehicle team came up from Huntsville and brought a slickly produced video to describe their program. The Orion team from Houston was only slightly more informative. I had sought the counsel of Sally Ride, who led Bill Clinton’s NASA transition in 1992, and she mentioned that the Aerospace Corp. was working on an analysis of the Ares program and she helped arrange for us to get a briefing from them. After a 20-minutes introductory briefing on the Aerospace Corp., our briefers concluded without sharing any details from their Ares study. Our detailed questions were met with nervousness and little eye contact. We later learned that NASA leadership had heard about our planned meeting and preemptively told them not to share the Ares results with us.”
Good reasons, at least from the point of view of the then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, to push back at attempts to delve into Constellation. At the time, Griffin entertained hopes of remaining NASA administrator under Obama. He had some evidence for this hope. The precedence of Dan Goldin, who served under President George H. W. Bush, President Bill Clinton and, for a time, President George W. Bush existed. Candidate Barack Obama had expressed support for Constellation during the campaign. Griffin was well positioned to shepherd the then troubled program to success.
However (and Garver does not mention this) Constellation was already doomed. Obama did not really support NASA or space exploration in general. Garver’s task was to bury the program and transition to something that more suited the president’s mindset, which did not involve anything that smacked of American exceptionalism, a quality Obama abhorred. Griffin was soon given the royal order of the boot and, after an extensive search, former astronaut and nonentity Charles Bolden was placed in charge of NASA. Garver was installed as Deputy Administrator as a reward for her efforts. Her term was fraught with controversy and acrimony.
When, a year later, the Obama White House killed Constellation, the firestorm in Congress was hot and furious. No one, outside a secret group that included Garver, knew what was coming. No one else was consulted. A strange and ultimately dysfunctional compromise was quickly devised that would become the Journey to Mars. NASA has meandered ever since. Garver is one of the chief architects of the disaster. Obama himself announced the new plan in a now infamous speech at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010.
Garver does have some words of advice for the next transition team.
“NASA should prop open the hood and let the new team take a look — not require a presidentially appointed, independent commission to pry it open. If the engine is running smoothly, there are no leaks and we have a full tank of gas, there shouldn’t be anything to fear.”
However, the next president is likely to have to make extensive changes to NASA and the programs its conducts. Much of that work will involve cleaning up the mess Garver wrought almost eight years ago.