Aviation Week takes a closer look at Deputy Administrator Lori Garver’s impending Sept. 6 departure from NASA. Frank Morring, Jr. notes that Garver has been the major driver behind the agency’s controversial push for commercial space activities as well as the plan to capture an asteroid and have astronauts visit it. He also notes the following:
Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, the agency’s No. 3 manager and top-ranking civil servant, is a likely possibility to fill Garver’s post on an acting basis until the White House can nominate another political appointee….
Garver’s departure will come on the heels of Elizabeth Robinson, the agency’s chief financial officer, who has been named under secretary of energy. Robinson and Garver were staunch allies in the often-heated management policy debates that pitted them against more traditional NASA managers, including Administrator Charles Bolden.
The announcement of Garver’s departure has already caused consternation among her supporters in the NewSpace community, who are losing their highest ranked advocate at the space agency at a critical time when Congress and the White House are at loggerheads over the space agency’s funding and direction.
The prospects of Garver being replaced — even temporarily — by Lightfoot will not sit well with that group, either. Lightfoot is former director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the lead center for the space agency’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). NewSpace advocates see SLS as a giant pork barrel project sucking up massive amount of NASA’s resources that will be too expensive to fly more than once every three or four years.
Of more immediate concern, however, is the loss of the movement’s most prominent figure as a crucial budget battle looms. The Senate Appropriations Committee has marked up the space agency’s budget for FY 2014 at $18 billion, an increase from the $17.7 billion requested by the Obama Administration. The House Appropriations Committee would provide the agency with $16.6 billion, a cut of $1.1 billion.
The two houses are far apart on the Commercial Crew Program. The Senate bill provides $775 million, close to the requested $821.4 million, while the House cuts spending to $500 million. The Senate is fine with NASA proceeding with the asteroid mission, while the House prohibits any new funding for the initiative until NASA returns with a more defined plan.
It looks unlikely that either bill will get passed by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Congress has not passed a budget on time in years, instead relying on a series of continuing resolutions that largely leave spending levels and priorities in place.
The rancor in Congress this year is especially pronounced, with threats of government shutdowns emanating from Republicans and a generally toxic negotiating environment. Congress has just adjourned for a four-week break, leaving little time to resolve issues when it returns in September.
What is likely to happen next month is another continuing resolution coupled with a set of automatic sequestration spending cuts that will cut into NASA’s budget and leave the agency without the money it says it needs to carry out the Commercial Crew Program properly.
During a media availability two weeks ago at the New Space 2013 Conference, Garver was asked about NASA’s options should it not get full funding for the Commercial Crew Program. The exchange:
Q. On a little different subject from the asteroid mission, you talked about commercial crew. In the past, you know you’ve talked for the need for full funding for commercial crew in FY 14. If you end up with something closer to what the House is offering, $500 million, or worse a CR [continuing resolution] and another round of sequestration, what does that do to the program looking forward? Can you protect the 2017 date [for commercial service] any longer, or does it shift out?
Garver: So, I think it’s really clear that to keep competition as long as possible, and to accelerate the time when we are no longer sending money to Russia, but spending those dollars here with U.S. companies, we need the full funding. We need as close to the full funding as we can get. If Congress decides that is not what they want to do, they can send that money to Russia for a longer period of time. We can go down to one competitor earlier, and thereby possibly increasing the cost and risk. We could look at going and doing this in a different way that is, with Space Act Agreements longer. Right now, Congress, again, locks us into FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation]-based contracts but not giving us the money and still wants the date. You cannot have all that. So, you have to look at every path to get us, we think, to U.S. capability as soon as possible.
Q. Does the $775 [million] the Senate is offering do that for you?
Garver: Obviously, it is as close to, so much closer to $821 [million] request that we really believe we could advance the best if we could get…the Senate mark.
Whatever happens with budget, one thing is clear: effective Sept. 6, Garver will no longer be around to fight NASA’s funding battles.