At some point a “prepared for delivery” version of NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver’s speech Thursday might show up on the NASA web site, but it will likely be different from the speech she actually gave to kick off the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2011 Conference at NASA Ames Research Center in California. Garver instead scanned through the agenda of the three-day conference, using the topics of sessions ranging from orbital and suborbital commercial spaceflight to public-private partnerships to discuss a number of relevant issues, including the roles of the public and private sectors in space going forward.
“The whole basis and underpinning of what we are trying to do in this administration is to return NASA to that more classical role of our 1958 Space Act of investing in technologies that will then help create new markets, so that the private sector can come in, benefit from this technology investment, and then we move on to do the next hard thing,” she said, summarizing the agency’s approach of working with companies and catalyzing private sector activity in space. “We’re not here to compete with the private sector—in fact, that’s not legal,” she added.
“That’s not our only job,” she noted. “Our job is also to expand farther.” One thing that is not NASA’s goal, though, she said, is to create a spacefaring civilization, a long-held goal of many space advocates in the conference audience—and of Garver herself, she noted, when she was the executive director of the National Space Society. “Go back to the Space Act. That’s not it. We’re here to push the envelope and learn new things.” It’s up to the private sector, she said, to follow that lead. “Your role of helping there to be folks who follow is what’s really going to get” civilization moving off-world.
In her speech she touched upon a number of areas where NASA was taking this role of developing technologies and leading expansion into the solar system while working with the private sector, from its support for commercial and orbital spaceflight to a planned human mission to a near Earth asteroid in the middle of the next decade. On that last point, she emphasized that such a mission was a natural steppingstone towards further exploration, and a not another destination-driven goal that has been tried in the past unsuccessfully. “Destination-driven budgets are, we know, problematic,” she said. “We’ve been trying to relive Apollo since the 1960s, but not successfully. Presidents make big statements, set goals and dates, and we don’t meet them. So that is not what this is.” She mentioned in passing that she had recently met with an unnamed company that claimed that it had a way of achieving that asteroid mission goal as soon as 2019.
She also said that low cost reliable access to space was a key goal of the current administration, one that it was willing to pursue despite the criticism that erupted last year with the announcement that NASA would cancel Constellation. “We’ve invested a lot of political capital on this, folks,” she said. “The President of the United States has decided that this is an area for NASA to develop that is meaningful, that will open up space for all humanity.”
“Does anyone think that the president has gained a lot of political ground over this shift at NASA?” she asked. “Probably it would have been the politically conservative thing to do to stick to the plan, not cancel existing contracts, even though those contracts were leading human spaceflight off a cliff.”
During the brief Q&A session that followed her speech, someone asked Garver what the audience should to to help. She suggested helping communicate the broader message to the public. “We get into these debates in Washington about how a rocket’s built or exactly what configuration this architecture will have. Is that the important thing? You guys know the important thing, which is that we do this in a way that doesn’t take all of our NASA budget, so that we can go further.”