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Lori Garver
During her stint as NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2011 for a NASA Future Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter / Museum of Flight)

Former NASA official Lori Garver’s resume is filled with highlights from politics and government service – going back to John Glenn’s presidential campaign – but when it comes to America’s space program, her heart’s with commercial ventures.

geekwiresummit-logo“The opportunities in commercial space are endless,” she told GeekWire. “Government opportunities are not endless.”

Garver, who helped draw up the Obama administration’s space policy and served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, will lay out the opportunities for commercial space ventures – and the limitations of government space efforts – at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday.

During her decades-long career, Garver has worked as a spokeswoman for the National Space Society and NASA’s associate administrator for policy and plans as well as a space industry consultant. In 2002, she came close to going into orbit on a Russian Soyuz craft as a privately funded “AstroMom.” (The requisite sponsorships and TV deal didn’t come through.)

After leaving NASA, the 54-year-old executive became general manager for the Air Line Pilots Association, the position she holds today. But even though her current role is more down to Earth, she continues to keep tabs on the space effort. For example, she has sharply criticized NASA’s long-range space vision, including the budget-straining plan to build a heavy-lift Space Launch System and send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020s.

What’s now known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission will be “absolutely up for grabs” when the next president takes office in 2017, Garver said: “I don’t think NASA is behind it, in a lot of ways, and Congress certainly isn’t behind it.” Even NASA’s plan to send astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s may be retooled.

“It’s embarrassing, almost, that with every mission that comes up, NASA has to mention the ‘Journey to Mars,’” she said. “It’s become a drinking game around here.”

The way Garver sees it, giving the private sector more of a role in space activities – ranging from resupplying the International Space Station to sending spaceships to Mars – is the best way for NASA to accelerate the pace of space exploration and exploitation.

“It’s really about developing capability, in case the president says, ‘Hey, we want to do something with the Chinese. What have you got?’ And at that point, you have your geopolitical purpose and your capability,” she said.

But commercial space ventures aren’t just about NASA contracts and geopolitical plays. They’re also about finding new opportunities for earthly profit.

“As you get cheaper launches, that allows cheaper satellites,” Garver said. And that, in turn, opens up new applications for space-based technology.

For example, hyperspectral data from remote-sensing satellites can tell hedge fund managers how crop yields are shaping up, which gives them an edge in the commodity futures markets. “There are investors doing that,” Garver said.

The promise of commercial space reminds Garver of the early days of aviation, when a wide spectrum of scientists and tinkerers were trying to figure out how to make heavier-than-air flying machines work.

“The government-funded guy dropped his airplane into the Potomac,” Garver noted, “while the Wright Brothers succeeded on their own.”

Science reporter Alan Boyle will have a fireside chat with Lori Garver about the future of commercial spaceflight and the coming transformation of the world’s airspace at 2:10 p.m. Thursday during the GeekWire Summit. It’s not too late to register.

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