Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Book Review: Lori Garver's NASA Memoir

Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age

Lori Garver

Diversion, 2022 

NOTE: I should preface this by saying that, despite a long time in space affairs, I don't know Garver. We only talked once, and that was briefly at an AAS convention (where, frankly, I was irritated because what was announced as a speech on space policy was an end-to-end Clinton campaign commercial).  


Lori Garver had an inside view during NASA’s modern evolution towards commercial space, and this memoir includes her take on the upheaval as NASA cancelled Constellation and made other changes that eventually led to the Artemis plan. Garver headed the NASA transition team for President-elect Barack Obama and eventually became NASA’s Deputy Administrator. She will always best be known as one of the most influential promoters of Commercial Crew, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), and other partnerships with the private sector.

I found myself agreeing with some of Garver's points about NASA. No matter how sharp and dedicated NASA's people are, it's just impossible for a large government agency 65 years old to avoid all ossification and the "we've always done it that way" syndrome.  I was a New Space booster before the term existed, and Garver includes examples of the problem. 

The book, though, is a bit mixed. A caution I always note in reviewing any memoir is that it relies on the author's recollection of private conversations, which are always subject to change over time.  Other people mentioned here have different memories, but I’m reviewing her book here and not trying to judge conflicting accounts. This valuable book is marred by a relentless us-and-them against the old guard of astronauts and administrators, who she calls “cup boys” as a swipe at the number who kept their old military-unit mugs handy. There is not much nuance to the way she portrays the supposed dinosaurs of NASA’s past or herself and the new commercial “space pirates” as the heroes. She has only enthusiastically positive things to say about Musk and Bezos. They certainly deserve some acclaim—especially Musk, of whom I was a major admirer for his work at SpaceX—but it’s still part of an oversimplified narrative.  Shoe does, though, admit to some mistakes on her part.

Garver was often criticized by her opponents in the agency as being a political appointee with only a superficial grasp of technology. I know how she feels being a non-engineer in space, but unfortunately, she does not do a great deal here to dispel that view. Her justification of Asteroid Redirect in particular vastly understates the complexity of the mission. 

Garver is at her best discussing budgets and policy. She offers an unobstructed view of how the budgeting process within NASA works and the budget decisions at important moments such as the period following the Augustine Commission. She skewers the existing budgeting process and the way NASA accepted bad contract terms and left costs fuzzy. She maintains the traditionalists not only were wedded to old ways of doing things but would not trust companies except the established giant contractors for major spaceflight responsibilities. SpaceX was the obvious example, but there are others. As a small satellite and launcher enthusiast who knew everyone in that particular sector, I can confirm how true this was for the people trying to get NASA to notice new ventures. (To be fair, NASA has always had some small satellites and probes, certainly a better record than the military.)  

Administrator Charles Bolden does not come off well in this book. Garver feels he was much too reluctant to say bluntly to the administration and Congress what the budget problems were and why they existed. She defends the cancellation of the increasingly unaffordable Constellation program, but she was not a fan of Bolden’s compromise that included the Space Launch System (SLS). If she is accurate. Bolden endorsed a non-SLS architecture one day and was talked out of it literally by the next day. 

Garver continually felt like a target. She says that, for promoting a shift away from NASA’s traditional approaches to human spaceflight and incorporating commercial options, the view of “a cabal of low-level functionaries led by me for driving an agenda that opposed human Space Flight was cultivated by people with a self-interest in keeping the existing program—including Charlie's own cup boys. Gaslighting prevailed.” History will note she WAS consistently proven right on one thing—that SLS and other traditional spaceflight programs were going to be far over budget and years behind schedule. (It would be good to hear the recollections of President Obama, but Garver is puzzled, as many were, that the President’s 700-page memoir of this time in office gave space a couple of sentences despite the massive changes under his administration.)

One thing I looked forward to in this book was her take on Bolden’s interview in Qatar. He said that President Obama had tasked him with three top goals, the foremost of which was to reach out to the Muslim world and help Muslim nations feel good about their historic contributions to science. The President's office and the Secretary of State's office adamantly denied anything of that sort had ever been said. As described here, Bolden was never able to pin it down in his subsequent statements, but he insisted it had been told to him by some appropriate official. Garver can’t find the origin either, leaving the impression it was a well-intentioned but flubbed bit of improv meant to nourish relations with his hosts. 

Garver was a major promoter of commercial reusable suborbital vehicles for research. I would have liked to have seen it too, but that was one thing she never got going. Commercial firms eventually did start providing flights for tourists, and some experiments are carried on these.  

Garver writes about the ridicule and disbelief SpaceX endured, not only because the older firms were afraid of them economically, but because many experienced people in NASA, the military, and industry held a genuine disbelief that these newcomers could do the job. She states, accurately enough, “The Air Force continued to award sole source contracts to ULA even after SpaceX was successfully flying national missions.” 

I also looked forward to her comments on the puzzling Asteroid Redirect mission. I’m biased here: I thought it was a highly risky mission and the objectives were not worth that risk.  Garver was a promoter of the mission and helped get the Agency leadership to endorse it, albeit never unanimously. She does get credit for one of the great briefing titles ever: the briefing on the challenge posed by asteroids was called, “Be Smarter than the Dinosaurs.” Her version of why the mission died was that it didn't offer “enough lucrative cost-plus contracts” to the traditional primes.  She feels NASA still has a system that creates programs to suit itself, including supporting those traditional primes, instead of programs primarily justified by their scientific and other purposes.

She tells an interesting story about creating a new vision statement for the agency. Garver and others came up with, “To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity” and “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown.” She doesn’t explain why neither said anything about space, although some better language was added later.  (See Footnote) 

Garver, an outspoken political liberal (another thread that winds through this book), spends some time on the role of women and minorities in what of course was overwhelmingly a white male pilot-driven culture until recently. Garver herself took a lot of inexcusable and sometimes illegal crap (that's the softest word I can come up with) from sexual harassers. She argues here that the agency still has a problem with diversity. Garver describes the creation of three major fellowships developing the next generation of leaders, a more diverse generation. She clearly does not believe there's any danger of undermining excellence by pushing for increased diversity, but it is unfortunate that she simply ignores that topic instead of refuting it. She recounts a scary list of negative feedback she got for changes in the agency, some of it directly or indirectly referring to her sex as well as her qualifications. She received verbal and e-mail harassment, harsh critiques she had no chance to answer that were circulated in Congress and elsewhere, and several death threats. 

Garver’s book is most valuable for the history of the changes she worked on, especially in commercial involvement, which, looking back, have allowed progress NASA’s budget alone would not have permitted. Her ability to move the needle despite Bolden’s strong initial dislike of the Commercial Crew program was impressive. She ends this book with some fascinating accounts of attending key commercial launches, although she sours this a bit by closing with a harsh critique of defense spending that’s only partially relevant.  

Bottom line, this is an important book. Garver had a ringside seat (she might, say, “Yeah, in the lion cage”) for pivotal events and offers a unique perspective. A library of the last two decades of NASA history wouldn’t be complete without it. The politics, the oversimplified battles with “the cup boys” and her moments of self-righteousness are all distractions, but this is her view, and she lets you know it. 

There are no footnotes, but there is an extensive list of sources by chapter. 

Footnote: I like NASA's current Vision and Mission statement much better. 


 Exploring the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all. 


 NASA explores the unknown in air and space, innovates for the benefit of humanity, and inspires the world through discovery. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Coming Soon: Real Stories of the Space Force

Ready for realistic space adventure? 

Baen Books' new anthology, Real Stories of the United States Space Force, is a collection of science fiction stories and fact articles illustrating the real-world need for space defense and dispelling misconceptions about the nation's newest military service branch. Out in 2024! 

Included: "The Kessler Gambit," my story of a crisis in 2034 that tests the Space Force's capability to its limit as an unknown enemy threatens to wipe American space forces from the cosmos.

13 Award-winning authors!   16 Original stories!  5 Fascinating articles!

Foreword by SDI Space Based Laser Chief Engineer, William F. Otto.

Contributions by nationally syndicated editorial cartoonists, Dave Granlund and Phil Hands.

Authors:  Arthur C. Clarke  /  Avery Parks  \  C. Stuart Hardwick  /  Brian Trent  /   David Brin  /  Greg & James Benford  /  Gustavo Bondoni  /  Harry Turtledove  /  Henry Herz  /  Jody Lynn Nye  /  Karl K. Gallagher  /  Larry Niven  /  Laura Montgomery  /  Liam Hogan  /  M.T. Reiten  / Marie Vibbert  /  Martin L. Shoemaker  /  Matt Bille  /  Michael Morton  /  Sylvie Althoff

Monday, June 19, 2023

The Majesty and Mysteries of Dolmens

 In 2014, I brought out a novel called The Dolmen.  In it, a wealthy eccentric (you never hear of the poor ones) illegally transports and entire megalithic tomb, or dolmen, from England for a museum in Los Angeles.  Too bad he was not smart enough to have someone sift through the dirt...  As the contract with the wonderful folks at Wolfsinger expires, this summer is the last change to grab one. They are on sale!

We keep finding new dolmens and new things about them. They were built over thousands of years, from England to Korea and south into the Middle East.    The basic dolmen, usually three vertical stone slabs with a capstone, had many variations, some much more elaborate.  Why are they found over such a range? Probably the same reason pyramids are: if you want to raise something that will last, pyramids and dolmens are two types that don't require much in the way of construction techniques.  (The best-known Egyptian pyramids show a very sophisticated system of design and construction, but there are cruder pyramids all over the world, many built of nothing but tramped-down earth.) Similarly, all you need to build a dolmen is four stone slabs and a HUGE amount of manpower.  See this (incomplete but VERY impressive) list on Wikipedia

Example dolmen (free clipart site)

A dolmen reported a few years ago from Galilee is decorated with rock art, a very unusual find: there is none like it anywhere in the Middle East.  The structure, with an interior chamber measuring about 6 square meters. is dated to approximately 4,000 years BP.  It is one of some 400 in a field near Kibbutz Shamir, but it's the largest, the most elaborate (surrounded by a boulder heap about 20m across and four smaller dolmens) and we have only fragments of knowledge about the people who built it. Israeli archaeologist Gonen Sharon notes the field of dolmens means, "a strong system of government was required here that could assemble a large amount of manpower, provide for the personnel and above all direct the implementation and control of a large and lengthy project.” Some stones weigh 50 tons.  

A cryptic message from the Bronze Age, only now being deciphered.  Is it any wonder I made one the center of a novel?

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Book Review: River Monsters by Jeremy Wade

 River Monsters

by Jeremy Wade
Da Capo Press, 2011
(reprint of a former blog post lost to technical difficulty)

The host of River Monsters here unspools his adventures with rod and reel. Wade is clearly a master at the craft of fishing, but he makes it clear here that sometimes he's benefited from dumb luck. He has caught (and, when practical, released) the largest freshwater fishes on every inhabited continent. 

Along the way, he has plenty of harrowing adventures, in the water and out. Wade explains some points of fish biology (for example, adapting to fresh v. salt water) and conservation concisely and clearly. He also has some tidbits for the cryptozoologist. Remember, Wade is the guy who filed an "impossible animal:" a river dolphin with a weird sawtooth back, which turned out to be a wildly unlikely survivor of being hacked with a machete by a fisherman. He investigates Lake Iliamna (finding some data I did not, although the reverse is also true) and comes to the same conclusion I did, that it's an undocumented population of white sturgeon. This book is gripping fun from beginning to end.

 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!