Former NASA deputy head details toxic culture, internal feuds over space policy during Obama administration

Former NASA deputy head details toxic culture, internal feuds over space policy during Obama administration

When Lori Garver was tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to become NASA’s No. 2 official in 2009, she saw it as a chance to usher in a new era of space exploration for the US and transform the agency into a more efficient bureaucracy.

Garver, who grew up enamored with space and politics after witnessing Neil Armstrong’s historic moon landing as a child, came prepared to effect massive change.

Instead, Garver writes in her new book “Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age,” she encountered stiff pushback from lawmakers who wanted to keep existing space programs that benefited companies who contract with NASA. The resistance held the space agency and the future of space exploration back, according to Garver.

The agency fought bitterly over what programs to pursue or cancel and what missions to fund. Garver writes that she pressed NASA to work with the private sector to embrace what she saw as a new era of space exploration — a vision she says was eventually accepted but only after relentless infighting.

The result was a years-long setback for the space agency, according to Garver, who details in her new book a system of government waste and inefficiency during her years at NASA.

She also writes of a persistent toxic male culture still prevalent at NASA and in the space community at large, writing that she and other women were subjected to misogynistic, sexist remarks and insults. In the book, she describes NASA culture as “reminiscent of the forts boys built and filled with cigarettes and girlie magazines.”

When she served at NASA in a more minor role in the ’90s, Garver recalls a NASA policy administrator calling her into his office on her birthday and suggesting he give her a “birthday spanking.”

“Being objectified was a part of being a woman working in aerospace when I was in my twenties and thirties, and I learned which men to avoid in the community,” Garver writes. “Many of us encountered unwanted sexual advances and harassing behavior without showing offense.”

Garver notes that in its 64-year history, NASA has never appointed a female head. And during her time as deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, 28 of the 32 astronauts who flew on Shuttle missions were men.

When Garver attempted to broaden diversity and inclusion at NASA, she was told it wasn’t a problem, she writes in her new book.

In an interview, Garver said NASA is improving, but the problem is still widespread in the space community.

“It’s something that we’re seeing now, a lot of concerns about aerospace companies, both traditional and new,” she told The Hill. “This is still a predominantly bro culture.”

NASA declined to comment on this article when reached for comment.

Growing up in Michigan in a traditionally Republican family informed Garver’s worldview and sparked her interest in politics, which intersected with her interest in space.

After graduating from Colorado College in 1983, she worked on the presidential campaign for John Glenn, the first American astronaut who orbited Earth and who later became a US senator.

Glenn failed to clinch the Democratic primary nomination for president in 1984, Garver’s experience on the campaign led her to the National Space Society and then to a policy adviser position for NASA from 1996 to 2001.

When she became NASA’s deputy administrator in July 2009, she was ready to deliver change to the space agency, which she believed had become littered with expensive contracts and lined with government waste.

Witnessing the catastrophic failures of she Space Shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, Garver was determined to set things on the right path.

She wanted to open up a new era for NASA that incentivized private companies exploring space. Garver was an early admirer of SpaceX and Blue Origin, who made historic private flights into space last year and are now working closely to ferry US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

But Garver describes her time at NASA in the Obama administration as constantly pushing “boulders” up a hill, citing frequent resistance from Congress and NASA officials who were initially against the idea to incentivize space exploration from the private sector.

“My quest to make space more accessible and sustainable wasn’t meant to start a war. I wasn’t trying to steal the future. I was on a rescue mission,” she writes in the book. “It isn’t just Earth’s gravity that we must overcome, it is the gravity of our situation.”

Garver also details how she fought against NASA’s head — her boss, Charles Bolden — as well as the former US Senators like Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) over the cancellation of a space program called Constellation.

Nelson, who is now the head of NASA in the Biden administration, declined to comment on this story.

Constellation was announced in 2004 under the Bush administration with the intention to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. It had a larger goal to establish a foothold on the moon so NASA could send manned missions to Mars and elsewhere in space. Under the Constellation program, NASA contracted with large private companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems.

Obama reluctantly extended the program in 2009. By the following year, the waste was evident to the president, Garver writes. Taxpayers paid up more than $9 billion by the time Obama realized the Ares rocket and the Orion spacecraft were behind the schedule, as were the scheduled flights to the moon by the early 2020s. The program was ultimately canceled in 2010.

Garver writes that she took the brunt of the attacks from companies, the public and elected officials who were irate that Constellation was canceled. She was criticized for much of the changes she wanted to make at NASA.

At one point, the late Sen. Hatch wagged a finger in her face and said, “I know you are the problem here,” she recounted in her new book. People demeaned her with names like “ugly whore” and told her to “get laid” or said she was “going through menopause,” which she argued in her book was a result of her being a women in the aerospace community.

Garver told The Hill she also received hate mail and even “dog shit” and said she managed to keep her head up after watching the film “Moneyball,” a movie starring Brad Pitt, who works against the traditional league system to try and win a championship as the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team. She found solace in the theme that when you try to a system, you meet pushback and criticism.

According to Garver’s book, when NASA ended Constellation, contracting companies attempted to be compensated for the cancellation of contracts. A “shitstorm” ignited when they were informed that wouldn’t be the case, but contracts were eventually renegotiated for billions of dollars.

In her book, Garver makes the case that existing NASA programs such as Space Launch System (SLS) are more costly and less successful than private sector efforts. She argues that while more funding goes into SLS than Commercial Crew, a program working with the space private sector, they are less efficient.

“The perpetual cozy system that shaped the behavior remains in place,” she writes.

Some of her critics, including Bolden, argue that Garver is too cozy herself with billionaires like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and that NASA’s own internal development and research should come before private companies.

Garver told The Hill she has heard that criticism before. But she said her goal has always been to increase maximum efficiency and propel humanity toward the stars, whether that was at NASA, SpaceX or another company.

Before she resigned in 2013, Garver spearheaded the creation of the Commercial Crew program, which continues to employ commercial contractors to ferry astronauts to the ISS, replacing the Space Shuttle Program that ended in 2011. The Bush administration announced the end of the roughly 39- year Shuttle program after the Columbia tragedy in 2003.

Until SpaceX began flying NASA astronauts in 2020 to the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew program, the US had relied on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get there.

Garver told The Hill she sees her legacy in Commercial Crew and in the accomplishments of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, which have all launched successful and historic private flights in recent years.

“Because I was willing to sort of stand up to the traditionalists, mainly at NASA, they eventually got on board,” she said. “I’m thrilled people want to support it now, but lots of people at the time didn’t even want it to exist as a program.”