Thursday, November 23, 2017

Lori Garver on Gov't Competing with the Private Sector, NASA, NewSpace, Maxar and the Brooke Owens Fellowship

          by Allison Rae Hannigan

Taking a long view on investments and their returns, Lori Garver has offered up a vision of space policy which would have been anathema in her time as deputy administrator for NASA. According to Garver, “fundamentally we need to shift how we invest our public dollars,” in the space industry.

Lori B. Garver, the current general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and the former deputy administrator of NASA. Photo c/o Allison Rae Hannigan.

Investment in space was the theme of the day at the “Space Summit: A New Space Age,” presented by The Economist Events, which came to the Museum of Flight in Seattle on November 9th, 2017.

In an interview with me after her panel session, I asked Garver what she thinks the future holds for US space policy. I wanted to know what she wants to see happen, compared to what the current trends predict, and whether any daylight exists between the two views. Her answer was in alignment with most of what we heard during the conference and also provided a more nuanced position.

Taking the longer view, she said, is important, and overall the future is positive. Once we in the space business get started along a successful direction, it will become reinforcing. Success builds on success, basically.

Garver quoted a study that has recently been performed by NASA that compares the cost of procurement along classic, "cost-plus" contracting practices with the more recent, "NewSpace" model used to engage SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and other launch services. The savings, which translate into returns on investment, are far greater with the new model.

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and commercial resupply services (CRS) historical financial data compared to space shuttle expenses when it comes to transporting items into orbit. Measures of cost per kg of cargo shown are for the actual tonnage delivered, not the maximum the spacecraft or carriers are capable of hauling. The measure includes the cost to NASA for launch services where the launch failed, with zero payload delivered. The data is current as of SpaceX CRS-11, which launched June 3rd, 2017. Chart c/o Edgar Zapata/ NASA.

The study, “An Assessment of Cost Improvements in the NASA COTS/CRS Program and Implications for Future NASA Missions,” by Edgar Zapata of NASA, compares the economics of cost-plus procurement with commissioning a private partnership such as the one undertaken several years ago by NASA with SpaceX. It’s a basic “old space” vs. “NewSpace” comparison.

Given NASA’s mission to launch crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), a comparison is made between previous costs involved with the Space Shuttle and with the current model of the commercial crew (CCP) and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) programs. A clear benefit is demonstrated with the NewSpace Model.

For example, NASA invested $140Mln US ($178Mln CDN) in the Falcon 9 under the COTS program, and the calculated return on investment (ROI) is estimated as over $1Bln US ($1.27Bln CDN) from the 20+ launches that would have otherwise gone abroad. Government investment, in other words, resulted in creation of new capabilities that translate into increased tax revenues, economic activities, jobs, etc.

During her panel, she said that tax payer dollars must never be wasted again on big missions at NASA, and that the government role is to invest in leading edge, enabling technology, so that commercial concerns can optimize the tech and create missions in a less wasteful way. She expressed these opinions in a room full of accepting professionals; however this type of approach was not always considered logical or desired.

According to Garver, “we just heard that we can’t have any risk. You’ve got to be a hundred percent. In a mature technology that is true. But we should be driving government immature technology and allow companies go see what works, and then that will determine what the applications are.”

When I asked her about this, she did amend her position to say that we sometimes have other, non-economic reasons for government to “cast further for missions with other Whys.” She gave as an example that when we went to the moon with the Apollo program, the "why" was to beat the Russians.

In the future, the ‘why’ could be defending against errant asteroids, for example.

She repeated what she said on the panel, that we’ve “been trying to re-live Apollo, making up a reason,” for the big missions such as going to Mars, and that approach is “hard to sustain.”

She told the audience, “In other areas of the economy we don’t try to compete with the private sector, but we live in this time when we yearn for the days of Apollo and big missions and the people advocate space work and it was wonderful.”

She continued, “Leading the Agency was the dream job of my life. But we should be allowing them to do it in ways that benefit us more… that is much more productive and innovative and returns benefits to people on this planet.”

I asked Garver about leaving the space sector to go to the ALPA, and she was quick to remind me that she never left the space business. She is on the board of San Franscisco, CA based Maxar Technologies, which she joined in 2015 when it was known as Burnaby, BC based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA).

But Garver talks about investment in more than just space economics. She believes in investing in people, too.

A former colleague, friend, and mentee, Brooke Owens, passed away last year, and the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program has been set up in her name, in large part thanks to Garver’s efforts as co-founder. The fellowship offers “paid internships and executive mentorship for exceptional undergraduate women in aerospace.”

Garver is quoted on the fellowship website, “My goal in helping establish the Brooke Owens Fellowship is to create opportunities for more young women like Brooke to have careers in aviation and space, while at the same time assuring our community benefits from their involvement.”

When Garver started talking about Brooke, the Fellowship, its successes, and its future, it was clear that she will be pouring all of her considerable talent and energy into this worthy endeavor in the future.

Last year, 36 internships were arranged for qualifying participants, and now is the time for new applicants to try for the next class. Garver said she wants the young women to derive the benefit of professional contacts through mentoring. She sees the program as the “Fulbright of the Future.”

For more on the new space age, check out my November 14th, 2017 post, "The Economist Assesses the Space Industry."
Allison Rae Hannigan.

Allison Rae Hannigan is an impassioned space industry professional focused on development opportunities, marketing, and business related to microgravity and earth observation sectors. 

She is also a free-lance consultant who has created marketing communications campaigns, as well as provided market research, and regulatory expertise to the international space community.

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