Chris Gainor's Space
Monday, 8 August 2022
Wednesday, 13 July 2022
The First Images From the James Webb Space Telescope
Friday, 24 June 2022
Book Review: Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age
Diversion Books, 2022
This review appears in issue 29:2 of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly.
Spaceflight and particularly human spaceflight have gone through some major changes in this third decade of the 21st century. In 2020, the first crews flew aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station, and since then Dragon’s flight manifest has included the first purely private flights of humans into space.
The rise of SpaceX to its commanding position in the space business of course owes a great deal to the drive and vision of Elon Musk and the team he assembled, but it also got a crucial assist from NASA when it overcame its traditional way of doing business by putting the private sector at its heart.
Arguably the person at the center of this major change at NASA is a woman who wasn’t even born when the first American rocketed into space in 1961, Lori Garver. After serving for nine years as the executive director of the National Space Society, Garver went to NASA in 1998, serving for three years as Associate Administrator under Administrator Daniel Goldin and President Bill Clinton.
Out of office in 2001 and 2002, Garver gained public attention from her attempt to become the world’s first “Soccer Mom” to fly to the ISS, an effort that ultimately fell short. During that decade, she advised the John Kerry, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama presidential campaigns on space issues. Under President Obama, she served as Deputy Administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013.
During those four years, Garver championed private sector solutions to the difficult spot NASA found itself in as the Space Shuttle program neared the end of its run. That left the agency without a viable replacement to get astronauts into space and back home aside from hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
SpaceX had been saved from financial ruin by short-term support from NASA in the final days of the George W. Bush administration, but Garver moved to strengthen this support through a Commercial Crew Program that was opposed by many in NASA and in the old-line aerospace contractors that had lost their way under inefficient and expensive cost-plus contracts.
In contrast to the growing library of books on Elon Musk and the rise of SpaceX and other new firms, very little has been written about the NASA side of this story until the recent publication of Garver’s memoir, Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age. Like the author, this book will inspire a whole variety of reactions among readers, depending on their viewpoints.
The recent successes of the new commercial spaceflight providers such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have inspired many people to take credit for these advances, including some unlikely candidates who are more strongly associated with longtime military and NASA contractors. Garver’s account gains credibility from the controversy that followed her in the days when the successes of today were far from assured.
Garver is not afraid to call out people with whom she locked horns, including the Obama era NASA administrator she served under, former astronaut Charlie Bolden, and today’s NASA administrator, former senator Bill Nelson. In spite of her association with Democratic administrations, I found that her account handed out both praise and criticism on a bipartisan basis.
Once the urgency of Apollo had passed, Garver accurately argues that NASA had become focused on preserving jobs in favored congressional districts at the expense of exploring space in an efficient manner. Many national defense programs suffer from the same problems that have troubled NASA, she says, and so taxpayers get little security for their money. Other social priorities such as public health suffer while the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of continues to grow.
“Government policies should incentivize individuals, nonprofit organizations, and corporations of all sizes to drive innovations that will respond to today’s challenges, instead of spending massive public resources to prop up outdated infrastructure and weapons systems aimed at fighting past enemies,” Garver concludes.
I found this book to be especially valuable because so little has been written about the political history of U.S. space programs since the beginning of the Clinton administration. Many of Garver’s assertions will spark controversy and disagreement, but this reviewer hopes that they will inspire others – including the targets of Garver’s criticisms – to write about the policy initiatives of the last 30 years that have transformed today’s space programs.
Thursday, 5 May 2022
Russian Space Program Another Casualty of War on Ukraine
Friday, 15 April 2022
Bjarni Tryggvason, Canadian astronaut, 1945-2022
Monday, 28 February 2022
Putin's War Returns Nuclear Weapons to Centre Stage
Tuesday, 28 December 2021
Will I be Writing a Book About JWST?
Since the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on December 25, a few people have asked if I will be a writing a book about JWST to follow my recently published book, Not Yet Imagined: A Study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations (NASA, 2021).
The answer is no, and there is a story behind that ‘no.’
There is an excellent book on JWST being written by Dr. Robert W. Smith, who also wrote the classic study of how Hubble was conceived and built, a process that also took decades. His book on Hubble, The Space Telescope, A study of NASA, science, technology and politics, was first published in 1989, before Hubble was launched, and an updated paperback version was published in 1993.
His book contains many insights on how astronomers overcame divisions within their ranks to win government approval for Hubble, and then it outlines the work that went into building this space observatory.
Since it explained one of the most prominent space programs of its time, I purchased Dr. Smith’s book for my library when it came out and read it with great interest. Dr. Smith was based at the National Air and Space Museum and Johns Hopkins University when he wrote that book, and he later moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where he became chair of the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.
As the new century began, I had written my first book of space history, Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race (Apogee Books, 2001), and I decided to earn a master’s degree in space studies at the University of North Dakota. When I completed that degree I decided to pursue further studies, and a promising avenue appeared at the University of Alberta.
I visited Dr. Smith in 2003 to inquire about studying the history of technology with him as my faculty advisor. I remember that he encouraged me to pursue studies for a Ph.D. That day we also discussed plans for a gigantic new space telescope that had just been named after the late NASA administrator, James Webb.
I spent the next few years on my Ph.D. studies, benefitting from Dr. Smith’s guidance and the many insights he had gained about Big Science projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope. By then, Dr. Smith had begun closely following the development of JWST, and I occasionally helped him with that work as graduate students often do.
My own Ph.D. studies focused on the years between World War II and the beginnings of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. That resulted in my dissertation, which became a book, The Bomb and America’s Missile Age (Johns Hopkins, 2018).
After I completed my dissertation, NASA was looking for someone to write a history of Hubble operations. Since Dr. Smith was working on his JWST book, he was unavailable for that project. Although I had not previously thought of writing a book about Hubble, I was available. With Dr. Smith's encouragement, I competed for that job and was selected in 2014 to write the book that covers the first three decades of HST operations. While writing that book, I received a great deal of helpful advice from Dr. Smith.
While at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as I conducted research for my Hubble book, I regularly looked in on JWST, which was being assembled in a gigantic cleanroom there. JWST appears in my book, and scientists hope to coordinate obervations between the two space telescopes once JWST begins operations.
Both the Hubble and Webb telescopes are highly expensive and complicated, and both underwent challenging development processes before they got to their launch pads. The pre-launch history of JWST goes back more than two decades, so Dr. Smith’s upcoming book will be a substantial one. I don’t know the title yet, but I am looking forward to reading it when it is published.
I hope to write at least one more book to add to the six I have already written. I haven’t settled on a topic, but I have been keeping busy during the pandemic writing papers on the history of space astronomy in Canada.