How NASA finally melted its giant “self-licking ice cream cone”

How NASA finally melted its giant “self-licking ice cream cone”

Lori Garver and Eric Berger on commercial space at Ars Frontiers 2022. Click here for transcript.

During the Ars Frontiers conference earlier this month, former deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver spoke about her efforts to change the space agency when President Obama came into office.

Large bureaucracies are resistant to change, of course, and NASA had been around for five decades in 2009. In particular, Garver and other appointees from the Obama administration sought to help NASA take advantage of the country’s emerging commercial space industry.

“The relentless momentum of the status quo exists for most government contracting because people who are paid to do something aren’t interested in someone lowering the cost,” Garver said. She explained that this is because changing the funding mechanism might mean that a particular part of NASA receives less funding.

The commercial space initiative had begun under Mike Griffin in 2005, and by the end of that decade, there was a begrudging acceptance within NASA and the broader space community that private companies should be tasked with taking cargo to the International Space Station. Garver’s fight involved extending that initiative to include crew flights, and there was greater resistance to that idea. The astronaut office was largely opposed, as was a majority of the established, traditional space industry.

“Dan Goldin, who was the head of NASA in the ’90s, called it the giant self-licking ice cream cone,” Garver said. “Why would someone want to get off that sugar high if they can keep lapping it up? So it was not popular. I was not popular. And members of Congress with the jobs in their districts from the traditional contractors fought the change and never really funded it fully and really tried to cancel it.”

This decision, of course, proved to be correct when SpaceX flew its first astronauts to the International Space Station in 2020. And on Friday, a second commercial crew provider, Boeing, demonstrated its ability to dock with the space station. The company should start flying crew in 2023.

The primary goal of commercial crew, Garver said, was lowering the cost of getting people into orbit. Safety remained paramount, of course, but she and others felt that private companies were ready to take over from the government, which had been sending humans into orbit since the Mercury program in the early 1960s.

“Historically, if you look at NASA’s budget and the number of astronauts we’ve flown, we’ve spent about a billion dollars per astronaut,” she said. “We’ve flown around 350 people in space since Apollo, and we’ve spent about $350 billion. SpaceX is now charging $55 million a seat. As a public policy initiative, it was really all about lowering the cost of getting into orbit, getting the taxpayers the best value, and allowing NASA to spend its billions on things that are unique to its mission.”

More than a decade after starting these cargo and crew programs, the commercial space industry that NASA kick-started is helping the United States remain at the forefront of spaceflight. Investors are spending billions of dollars per year to start new companies or support fledgling ones. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the capabilities of these new companies, such as providing synthetic aperture radar tracking of troop movements or Starlink Internet communications to war-torn communities, have demonstrated the potential of this new sector.

But as Garver explained during her talk, none of this came easy.

“It was so striking when we put out our first budget request in the Obama administration and it asked for this change—to have the private sector do this rather than the government,” she said. “Congress was furious. And yet when I went overseas, what was the response? I would say envy. And then you knew you were on the right track.”

Listing image by NASA

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