Hall-walker scuttlebutt at NASA headquarters has it that an administrator-suite retreat at a hotel across the street a couple of weeks ago didn't go very well. At one point, it's said, the space agency bosses assembled to smooth over their differences with the help of a professional facilitator had to send out for a copy of the Space Act of 1958, which set up NASA.
Among those in attendance were Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who have had sharp disagreements over the direction NASA should take from its current crossroads. For those trying to figure out where the U.S. civil space program is headed, the reported dive into the Cold War legislation that set up NASA suggests those disagreements are pretty fundamental.
Garver may have given a clue as to what that was all about a week or so later, when she made a speech to budding lawyers from the University of Nebraska. Garver, considered a prime mover behind the dramatic shift in U.S. civil space policy under President Barack Obama, highlighted the links between the original intent of Congress in setting up NASA, and the new approach she and her allies in the White House are pushing.
"Our purpose in taking NASA forward on a bold new path is to uphold and advance the fundamental principles of the Space Act," Garver stated in her prepared remarks.
Two areas in particular stood out in Garver's talk. The Obama administration's proposed shift to commercial space taxis to take U.S. astronauts to orbit, she said, draws on the 50-year-old congressional call for NASA to "seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space." And the big-bucks spending on open-ended "transformative technology development" in NASA's Fiscal 2011 budget request had its origin in the Space Act declaration that NASA's job is "the preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology."
If Garver is the A-suite advocate of the administration's "bold new path," Bolden -- her nominal boss at NASA -- seems to be more open to preserving at least some of the legacy of the Bush administration's abortive Constellation Program of back-to-the-Moon vehicles, including a government-developed replacement for the retiring space shuttle. Congress, which is trying to settle on its own space policy before recessing for the midterm elections, is heading in that direction too.
In that debate Michael Griffin, Bolden's immediate predecessor as administrator and a prime architect of the Constellation Program Garver wants to scrap, favors language in the House bill because it is more explicit in its call for a "national capability to put crew in low Earth orbit."
"A crew launch capability which is not dependent upon commercial interests or the state of international partner relationships is a strategic national asset, and should not be sacrificed to lesser interests," Griffin said the day before Garver gave her talk to the law students. "Clear and demanding milestones are required to focus the program, and to keep non-credible options off the table."
That last bit is a shot at the diffuse technology program Garver wants, continuing a public -- and publicized - spat that broke out between Griffin and Garver during the presidential transition over who was qualified to set space policy. Griffin is a multi-degreed engineer, while Garver by her own admission is not.
"I will admit to being a policy wonk," she told the Nebraska lawyers. "I find this all very exhilarating, and I look forward to the years ahead as this new space policy is explicated and amplified and fleshed out with real world experiences and missions."
At this point, with the executive branch still squabbling internally over what its basic job is in space exploration, it looks like it's going to be up to Congress to make the call and put some meat on the space-policy bones.