Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft made a safe return home from its five-day stay at the International Space Station on Wednesday, concluding a long-awaited test mission that could pave the way for the Starliner to launch astronauts for the first time later this year.
And the former NASA deputy administrator, when asked by CNN Business how SpaceX’s future might play out, had a message for Elon Musk: Don’t trip on your ego, adding that the perils and politics of spaceflight are already potential risks to the company’s future.
In her new memoir, “Escaping Gravity,” Garver wrote about her feelings watching the success of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the initiative that brought about the first privately owned human spacecraft that culminated in SpaceX’s historic 2020 astronaut launch.
“SpaceX has a huge lead and is running faster than any of the competition, including all the big aerospace companies,” she wrote. “To me, that is both fantastic and scary at the same time.”
She adds that, “[e]scaping gravity is not a simple maneuver and in the coming years it will be impossible to beat it safely every time. The private sector will have to answer to its customers for missteps that lead to bad outcomes. Only time will tell if they will be given the opportunity to correct their errors and continue as NASA has been allowed to do in the past.”
In an interview with CNN Business, Garver also said she was disheartened to read recent reporting alleging toxicity within SpaceX’s corporate culture amid Musk’s erratic behavior on Twitter and a broader “bro culture,” as she put it, that permeates the aerospace industry.
Garver warned that if companies don’t get serious about addressing issues like harassment and lack of inclusivity, “they will lose workforce.”
“These rockets don’t build themselves,” she said. “The best and the brightest, they aren’t going to put up with behavior that is truly a distraction…The bro culture could succeed in the past because the predominant number of engineers were white males. That is no longer the case. And we absolutely benefit from all comers. All views.”
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor has it responded to routine inquiries from reporters in years.
In her book, Garver also recounts the harassment she said she endured during her career in aerospace, which spanned NASA as well as various other corporate and government jobs. Being objectified was simply “a part of being a woman working in aerospace when I was in my twenties and thirties,” she said.
In her book, she recalls one NASA supervisor who once “told me to come into his office so I could get my birthday spanking” in front of several colleagues.
In a separate incident, Garver recalled being in Moscow in her thirties when “a senior aerospace contractor who had been over-served pushed his way into my hotel room, shoving me onto the bed.”
“I was able to get out from under him and run into the hall, finding a colleague to intervene,” she wrote.
“I never reported the incident to NASA or to his employer. Embarrassed and assuming it would be my own career that suffered, I—like so many others—swept such occurrences under the rug,” she wrote. “I’m ashamed for many reasons, but mostly because the behavior likely continued.”
“It is time to end justifications for rooted misconduct as well as the field’s predominance of people—including in its leadership—who look and think the same way,” Garver wrote. “Progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion has been much too slow.”
When Garver was selected to become NASA’s second-in-command in 2009, she said she had already been thinking for decades about shaking up the space agency’s contracting policies. The old way, known as “cost-plus” contracting, in some ways gave NASA’s corporate partners a blank check to get projects done, and they were routinely delayed and over budget.
The contracting method that Garver and a small contingent of others pioneered for human spaceflight programs at NASA is what’s come to be known as the commercial contracting structure. It allows companies to compete for contracts before NASA doles out fixed amounts of money. If projects run over budget, it is up to the contractors to cover the cost. But many aerospace stakeholders pushed back, arguing that human spaceflight programs were too technologically complex and expensive for multiple companies to attempt.
It was a contentious and fraught battle to attempt to change the system, Garver recalls.
“Senior industry and government officials took pleasure in deriding [SpaceX] and Elon in the early years,” Garver wrote in her book. “To me, this seemed irresponsible.”
At one point, Garver described herself as one of Musk’s “most ardent supporters [and] defenders.”
Ultimately, the Commercial Crew Program was approved and funded by Congress. SpaceX and Boeing were both chosen for multi-billion dollar contracts, and two years ago, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft safely delivered its first crew of astronauts to the International Space Station. The company has since completed three additional launches for NASA astronauts as well as two purely commercial missions for wealthy thrillseekers. (Boeing is still working to get its Starliner spacecraft operational but completed a test flight last month.)
SpaceX’s success won over many of the Commercial Crew Program’s former skeptics.
Still, Garver admits that she did not expect SpaceX would be the standout in the commercial space race. When she was first imagining this new approach to awarding contracts, it was “so long before the billionaire investors in space” were part of the public imagination. “We always thought it would be [legacy] aerospace companies,” such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing, she told CNN.
“It’s not something we envisioned for a number of reasons,” she said. “First being that we didn’t envision billionaires amassing this many billions.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the context to Garver's quote about not reporting an incident to NASA.