Frustration oozes from the pages of “Escaping Gravity,” and rightly so. Seemingly at odds, but only if you’re not in the business of space exploration, there is also a determination to carry on and leave a positive impact throughout the memoir of Lori Garver, Deputy NASA Administrator from 2009 to 2013. If you have come to NASA aware of a host of challenges, and you want to leave the place better than when you arrived, it turns out your agenda is competing with a strong vibe that says everything is fine, carry on, there’s nothing to see here.
So, it should be no surprise that Garver’s story about her “quest to transform NASA and launch a new space age” is about strife, filled with first-hand experiences colored with context, all laced with hope. The vantage point of the NASA deputy administrator is specially positioned for taking in the shape and conditions on the battlefield. It’s time to share. Even if hooked on the space news sites at the time, and staying on top of your emails, or getting the calls people get when it’s clear what will be said must not be written down, I discover that if I thought it was awful at the time, that’s not true. It was worse.
This kind of NASA memoir is refreshing for its daring to capture a pivotal time as it was, unadorned, warts and all, balanced with a passion for NASA and space exploration. Garver points out, “Memoirs by former NASA political leaders are conspicuous in their absence.” It would be easy for an outside observer to believe that NASA’s storybooks are only filled with pretty pictures from space, astronaut antics floating around, or a trip to Mars, again, this time soon. No, really. Instead, Garver captures the experience behind the scenes in Washington, reminding the reader how space exploration starts back here on Earth, with a battle to keep NASA relevant, improving people’s lives, not just showing a pulse.
“Reforms. Sustainable. These are words dear to my heart – so call me biased.“
Of Garver’s accomplishments, she says her most meaningful were “driving reforms at NASA that are leading to more valuable and sustainable space activities” Reforms. Sustainable. These are words dear to my heart – so call me biased. The story-telling here is not the sort where the team comes together and pulls off a creative hack to fix a probe going to Mars. This is not that kind of NASA coffee-table book. But it definitely belongs on the table, say, next to “View from Above,” but as the book you actually read, line for line, with folded corners and penciled-in notes along the way. (“Find that report,” “sustainable” circled again, “Know the feeling.”)
Unique in Lori Garver’s story is her vantage point as a woman in NASA. Atop that, regardless of her extensive space and science policy qualifications, she found herself disregarded, and worse, inside a NASA dominated by men with engineering and science degrees. Having spent 30-plus years in NASA, I can vouch for how even when there appears to be so much progress in NASA, for women, people of color, and minorities, someone’s comment at the start of a meeting ruins it all. Sadly, I can confirm this was still so around when I departed NASA in 2021 (pre-vaccine, post-George Floyd.)
...self-licking ice cream cones and the political powers that be “funding programs disconnected from modern society.”
Garver lays out the facts, names are named, and the deserved and constructive criticisms are amply backed up. No lack of detail leads back to self-licking ice cream cones and the political powers that be “funding programs disconnected from modern society.” Though Garver reserves particular criticism for those outside NASA, in the press, and the poor incentives at work. “Reporters who attempt more rigorous analysis do so at the risk of retaliation.” Or worse, they lose eyeballs, which have become a goal far and above any priority to inform.
As I took to writing after leaving NASA in early 2021, I found no lack of old stories and new thoughts to keep sharing about problems and opportunities in NASA and space exploration. As you can see, this is now my 68th blog. It may be my compulsion to write, having once been told I was “prolific” – except realizing this was not intended as a compliment a minute later. I can only imagine Garver similarly felt compelled to set the record straight.
Garver has done a rare public service in “Escaping Gravity,” avoiding the adulation, praise, and sugary treat that would otherwise easily stand in for a memoir of a time in NASA. It’s healthy and constructive to speak to difficulties lived first-hand if NASA is to continue to push forward. Right now, the most critical challenges for the space sector are half about overcoming our little gravity well and another half about overcoming the traps we built ourselves. Unarming these traps will not be easy. Yet, there is no reason to lose hope, as we see the success of many a change in NASA that was once fought against tooth and nail. Space beckons, where a “reformed NASA can be the rising tide that lifts all boats.” Garver’s book reminds us about the battles, the successes, and page after page, how this is a battle and a NASA well worth fighting for.