Lori Garver, Part III: Space Station, Experiments and Transport

Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver
Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver

In this third and final excerpt from the NewSpace 2013 conference, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver answers reporters’ questions about the future of the International Space Station, cargo services to the orbiting facility, and experiments being done there.

Q. But, do you have any more Progress cargos going up next year?

Garver: Oh, we’re not going with Progress anymore….We’re not going with the Russians anymore, it turns out we’ve got U.S. capability.

Q. It just seems like the U.S. capability is only starting to get a little finger nail hold on it, and it feels a little unstable to me to be stopping the Progress cargo before you’ve got that finally going. Cygnus hasn’t even gone operational yet, they’re still demonstrating.

Garver: Right. But, we made this commitment. So this is a tough policy call, and it’s where we’re going to find ourselves with commercial crew, hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s one of the rules of wing walking, are you going to let go long before you’re on the other. And we had to do it, we gave up Progress flights and said we were committed to U.S. cargo capability. And that’s one of the reasons we had the last shuttle mission manifested, so we could stock the space station chock full of supplies and resources so folks could last. And we, with a couple of Dragon flights and now poised to get Cyngus, really believe we are in great shape for cargo on station. And we’re very excited to have a competitor, not just one, but we are really, really pleased and comfortable with progress.

Q. I certainly hope that happens, but I’m wondering if there’s a contingency plan if something does go wrong with some of the commercial partners. Do you have provisions in your contracts with the Russians to perhaps procure another cargo and Progress if you need it?

Garver: Of course, should one of our partners not make it, the other could. So, that would be our first line. Space station, as well as with so many international space programs, we’ve been there for each other. Everyone has experienced difficulties over time. And I have no doubt we would be able to solve this with an international agreement. It is a partnership that has remained strong and meaningful over decades now, and I guess I would be very positive, and I would argue the same would be true should they have problems, which, of course, we recognize they have been. We would like to think they would do the same. That’s a great thing about partnership.

Q. I wanted to ask a followup on ISS and extending it to 2028. There have been some rumbling that the partners aren’t interested in that. The Russians have talked about taking some of the modules for this and forming their own station. What’s your sense of Russia and ESA and Canada and Japan being interested in continuing that for another 8 years?

As I talked about, it is something that we all want to work toward, but we have to do it in a way that really does reduce those costs and increases its meaning and capabilities. So, our partners have the same issues that we do, that these are tax dollars and when the public is paying for this, their government leadership wants to see a return.

So, we worked together a couple of years ago to get it extended from [20]15 to 2020, that was easier with some of the partners than others, some are just getting there. And so, really, moving them another eight years now when it seems pretty far away and it is, in many of their cases, a pretty high share of what their government-funded space programs do, is a stretch. I think if we can reduce the costs, that will allow more people to see it as a valuable thing to do, and we are working toward that together.

Q. Is there sort of a timeline, a date that you have to make a decision on extending past 2020?

Garver: We have in the U.S. sort of a five-year budget time frame, and so we were running up against that when we extended it from [20]15. So, if you look at when you would have to start spending money, you look five years out. So, we’re preparing a [20]15 year budget now. That isn’t really a budget issue probably until [20]16.

Let me just mention on the space station issue, and we talked about not only in the U.S. but in other countries, folks want to invest in space programs and help their own industry and so forth. And so, while space station we’re utilizing now, a lot of countries have similar to us more interest in building something new because that’s what sort of returns the benefit. I was talking in Japan, in particular, we all thought in the beginning they were going to really utilize space station and we were concerned they would be the ones developing all the commercial flights. People want to do, sort of, the next thing, and that’s a natural part of these programs.

Q. I’m focused on the utilization of the space station, that’s the area I like to focus on the most. And some of the feedback I’ve gotten from the people I’ve interviewed, especially from the pharmaceutical and the biotech industry, is that NASA is a very difficult organization to get information out of. There doesn’t even seem to be a repository, a database or a catalog of all the research that’s been done. For a non-space player like a pharmaceutical person to come and say, ‘OK, well, if I want to go do stuff in space, what are the areas of expertise I could look at, what’s been done, what’s the most promising for my business?’ That just doesn’t seem to exist. And I don’t know if that’s because people don’t know where to look, or if NASA really has a gap there.

Garver: So, I’m sure it does exist. I remember working with companies that were trying to do this in the [19]90’s, and similar concerns existed. It’s one of the reasons we drove to an outside organization, CASIS. That is precisely what they are there for.

Q. I’ve asked them, and they told me go talk to the ISS Office. I mean, you get that. And then the other people I talk to who are trying to find this information have the same problem. And it would be just so nice if there was a catalog of research. Not press releases, not studies, just a catalog. When the experiments were, who the researchers were, what were the lines of inquiry, possible what the results are. Just so someone objective could come in and see the smorgasbord before them.

Garver: So, we are working with CASIS to get that more…And we know there is progress to be made. I really believe there’s more information there. And would argue, as in my talk, one of the things that we’re trying to more of is if we had a space station that was about that and from the beginning, we would have done that, right?

Q. So, there’s some feedback for you the industry has been saying they want so they can utilize the space station more, which is what you need.

Q. So, when you said that you spend $50 to $100 million a year for research on space station, it seemed like you were saying, if we had more funding to do more research on space station, we could use it more, make better use of it and show its utility.

Garver: Of course, of course. We have been trying to carve out greater shares for utilization, and I think the hope is that as we get ops costs down, we can do that and bring them more in line. We definitely have within now, the cargo capability, the ability to do more if we could get a larger budget.

Q. To bring operations costs down and you hope that—

Garver: Or get more money, but we know that’s somewhat unrealistic. This has been the Gordian knot of station for 20 years. I remember we first had its very own directorate that was, at the time, codes at NASA, for utilization. But, the money just kept going to building the station. And the argument had to be, well, what’s the point of funding using it if you can’t get it built. And now, we’re trying. It’s built, it’s operational, the big other issue to unravel was transportation, now we’ve got transportation, we’ve got astronaut time. We’ve got the ability to do this.

Q. Astronaut time is a problem. It’ll be nice when we get seven up there. Because right now you only have one out of six [working on research].

Garver: Right. And what do we need to get seven?

Q. Commercial crew.

Garver: So, we’re all working toward being able to do that. And I want to make sure that my caveat, that $50 to $100 million for research doesn’t include Science Directorate, which is utilizing it more and more. They’ve got Earth sciences on it, and we really believe that has been a benefit as well.

  • therealdmt

    This was interesting.

    So, we have a space station that is too expensive to operate (to be replaced by a capsule/launch system that is too expensive to operate!).

    And Ms. Garver explains why — the countries involved really want to move on to building the next big thing instead of getting into actual utilization. It’s not just the U.S. — all the partners are more interested in funneling money to their national aerospace industries than in actually doing the things the equipment is supposed to enable. These are jobs programs, vote-getters, and national manufacturing capabilities enhancement programs.

    The next big capability for the U.S. though is a commercial launch industry — including for people. The best way we can achieve that is through using commercial crew to the space station to fund the industry though its infancy. The best way we can do that is to keep the space station going. For other countries, they have no chance of having a manned commercial launch industry by 2030 (well, Russia already has one, to an extent), so they want to get on with building the next level up of equipment (which is why ESA wanted to do something more advanced than using their already-designed tug as a Orion service module).

    In other words, the station never really was for research — any more than the Apollo program was for science. Yes, some very interesting science can be done along the way, but that’s really just a side benefit to a high profile jobs/national prestige program.

  • therealdmt

    And so congress happily pays billions for Orion/SLS while knowing full well that they are not on a funded path to Mars. This is also why congress fought the administration so hard to try to keep Orion/Ares alive, even though they knew full well that the first step, the “moon” in ‘Moon, Mars and Beyond’ wasn’t funded. Of course they’d *like* to go back to the moon (or now Mars — or even the Moon, then Mars!), we all would. It would be nice if it worked out. But the main point is to keep funding the construction program (capsule and rocket). If it’s never going to go to its supposed destination, that’s an ancillary issue.


  • Douglas Messier

    I think this is mostly right. Garver said in the media interview and in her keynote address that ISS wasn’t designed from the beginning to do primarily microgravity research. It was clearly part of the mission, but it wasn’t really optimized for it.

    What Garver said NASA is aiming toward is to get operations costs down while optimizing utilization rates. That involved both getting companies to do more research up there and also getting to a seven-person crew. She believes that not all the research NASA wants to do on ISS for its own purposes (for example, sending people beyond LEO), will be completed by 2020. Hence the need for the extension.

    Although she didn’t mention this, I personally believe that the development of a “killer app” from microgravity research would really help matters. For example, let’s say Zero Gravity Solutions develops a billion dollar business using a plant modified in microgravity that produces jet fuel, can grow in the scrub lands of Texas without causing serious environmental side effects, and doesn’t compete with food crops like other biofuels. It sounds almost too good to be true, but if it happens people would really take notice.

  • Paul451

    Is it worth pointing out that she’s gone? Quit NASA and starting a job with the pilot’s union ALPA.