From the start, were you trying to support commercial partnerships with the space industry, or did that develop out of necessity?
I would describe the goal as being to increase the efficiency of the tax dollar and to reduce the cost of getting to orbit. Because then at that point NASA can be doing more cutting-edge, unique, interesting, important things in space.
Partnering with industry wasn’t a goal. It was an outcome, a path to reach a goal that we all shared in space policy—since the Nixon administration—to reduce the cost of space transportation. Doing it with the private sector was something that started in the ’90s, and continuing those efforts was the obvious way to go. We had lost nearly the entire launch market to the French, Chinese, and Russians in the late ’90s, and winning back that market share by paying [private US companies] to take cargo and astronauts to the space station was a big economic boom for the nation.
A few years ago, you said that NASA needs to abandon its “socialist” approach to space exploration. What did you mean by that, and do you still believe that?
That was in direct response to the Space Launch System and Orion, which were started by Congress after our proposal [to defund them] had not been accepted. Really, the shuttle, the Constellation program, which the Bush administration established to follow the shuttle, and then SLS/Orion, were all done in a government-directed way that mimics a Soviet approach.
NASA collaborated on a commercial crew program with SpaceX, and now Boeing, to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. Would you say that was a prescient approach, following subsequent troubles with Russia and how it’s harder to get flights on Soyuz spacecraft?
I guess I feel less “prescient” than it was just so obvious to me, and to a lot of people, that we didn’t want to count on the Russians forever. For one, they were a monopoly provider. They kept increasing their prices, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We needed our own systems, and ideally more than one.
Look, we had the experience with the shuttle: The government developed one. We had two accidents. After each of the accidents, it stood down for more than two years. So it was a bit surprising that the concept seemed so controversial.
What kinds of resistance did you face, and from whom, as you tried to expand NASA’s support or partnerships for the private space industry?
At the time, it seemed like everyone. In NASA, there wasn’t support in the leadership. As I say in the book, the head of NASA—I was the deputy—was not supportive and did not request money for the [commercial crew] program in the budget. But I had led the transition team and had talked to the president about it and was working closely with the chief science adviser of the White House and the Office of Science Technology and Policy, the National Economic Council, Office of Management and Budget. They were all very much in favor of this policy. So it got into our budget without the NASA administrator or the senior leaders responsible for human spaceflight at NASA really being involved.