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Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver hears from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. (Lori Garver via Twitter)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk makes it sound as if he always wanted to put a Tesla Roadster, and not much else, on top of the Falcon Heavy rocket for this week’s historic maiden launch. But NASA’s former deputy administrator, Lori Garver, says the story behind Starman and the Roadster is more complicated.

In an op-ed written for The Hill, Garver says that SpaceX offered NASA the opportunity to put a payload on the launch — but that NASA refused the offer.

And in follow-up tweets, Garver says she was told by an unnamed SpaceX executive in advance of the launch that the Air Force turned down the offer as well:

We reached out to SpaceX as well as NASA and the Air Force for comment, and NASA spokeswoman Tabatha Thompson replied via email: “NASA did not officially ask for payload space on the inaugural flight of Falcon Heavy, nor did SpaceX solicit for a payload.”

If you needed to reconcile NASA’s statement with Garver’s secondhand report, you could surmise that informal discussions were held but didn’t go anywhere.

The point of Garver’s op-ed was that NASA should turn its focus away from the Space Launch System, which is costing billions of dollars annually and isn’t due to fly until 2019 or 2020. She said NASA should make use of SpaceX’s less expensive Falcon Heavy instead:

“Once operational, SLS will cost NASA over $1 billion per launch. The Falcon Heavy, developed at zero cost to the taxpayer, would charge NASA approximately $100M per launch. In other words, NASA could buy 10 Falcon Heavy launches for the cost of one SLS launch — and invest the remainder in truly revolutionary and meaningful missions that advance science and exploration.”

The claim that the Falcon Heavy doesn’t depend on federal funding sparked debate. Some observers pointed out that SpaceX profits from NASA’s funding for other programs, and that some of those profits went toward what Musk estimates was an investment of more than $500 million in the Falcon Heavy.

It also has to be acknowledged that SLS is designed to have greater capability than the Falcon Heavy. But is that worth the higher cost and extra development time?

Such arguments are likely to be heard from other quarters over the next couple of years as Trump administration officials and congressional leaders debate how best to turn the White House’s moon-then-Mars vision into reality.

“Both SpaceX and NASA have missions to Mars as their goals, but only one can actually get there at a sustainable cost,” Garver wrote.

The claim that SpaceX made an offer, even informally, to fly more serious payloads on what’s now the world’s most powerful operational rocket might make some people feel better about the “Tesla gimmick.”

On the other hand, the rationale for flying such a silly payload as a “mass simulator” was that the launch was too risky to fly anything more serious. If NASA and the Air Force turned down an offer, it’s more likely because they didn’t have the right kind of spacecraft ready for launch on a rocket that might well have blown up.

That may well be why any informal discussions fizzled.

For an alternate version of the Starman origin saga, check out this launch-day report from Motor Trend. And stay tuned in case we hear anything from the main players in the story.

Update for 7:20 a.m. PT Jan. 9: In another follow-up tweet, Garver reflects further on the issue and says a NASA decision to pass up an informally offered launch opportunity would be “understandable” — which is the view that several commenters and I came around to as well:

This report was updated at 10:16 a.m. PT Jan. 9 to incorporate NASA’s statement, and revised at 11:49 a.m. PT to characterize the discussion about funding for the Falcon Heavy more precisely. Hat tip to Daniel Fischer (@cosmos4u).

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