Transcript: Space4U podcast, Glen Asner & Stephen Garber

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hi there. This is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast, a podcast about the stories and the people who make today’s space adventures possible. I’m joined today by the authors of a brand-new book. That is called “Origins of 21st Century Space Travel.” Those two authors are Dr. Glen Asner, who’s the deputy chief historian for the Historical Office for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Stephen Garber, who works at the NASA History Office. And as the deputy historian, both of these gentlemen have worked together at NASA headquarters and have significant experience. And cross-collaboration between NASA and the Pentagon and are both, uh, esteemed, and I would say rising historians, uh, in the field of space flight and in space technology matters. Both of you work at your respective, uh, agencies, history departments, both NASA and the department of defense. What do you do in your respective jobs to be historians there? And how do to agencies like NASA and the Pentagon work to capture that history?


Uh, well, this is Glen Asner the chief historian in the OSD historical office. Our office covers a wide range of subjects in our two main areas of expertise are providing assistance to senior leaders in the department and writing books. So we have, uh, two major books series. One is on the history of the secretaries of defense and other one.


Is on the history of defense acquisition. Uh, that’s a series that I run myself I’ve been doing so for about a decade and it deals with weapon systems and among the weapon systems are missiles and rockets. So we detailed the, the history of the development of those systems. Um, the office provides a lot of information papers to senior leaders.


We do many oral history interviews of a variety of activities across the department, including, uh, running a speaker series. So in terms of how the two agencies relate. Uh, in a lot of areas, there’s some, they’re sharing it personnel, obviously a lot of astronauts come from the military. That’s the first one, uh, or have in the past and, um, uh, their sharing of infrastructure and technologies.


Yeah. What about you, Steve? Or is the NASA history office? What is your job here at NASA. And how do you guys work with the Pentagon in chronicling? Some of that history? Sure. This is Steve Garber from NASA. Our office has two main kinds of customers, internal and external. So like Glen’s customer primary customer.


We focus on answering questions from NASA leadership and managers. And in addition, we also. Respond to questions and of various kinds from people on the outside of the agency, people who are just interested in aerospace history overall, to get that done, we have a few different categories of things that we do.


We, as I said, answer information requests. We have a fairly large archives. We also have a very large website. And we also last, but not least are known for our NASA history series of publications. And this book is just one of many books that have been published over the years by our office. And as Glen said, the two agencies DOD and NASA do cooperate a lot.


In developing space, technology, sharing personnel, and many other things, uh, in, in the space area, because it does involve a lot of specialized technology and expertise. So tell me about the book origins of 21st century space travel. What’s the drive behind this. So we were approached, um, actually on the day I was approached that day before I started at NASA in 2004, by the chief historian who had been approached by a man named Harley throats and who was a member of what’s called the decadal planning team.


And that is, uh, the history of that is detailed in the book. And it’s also in the title of the book and the subtitle Harley had. Ask Steve DEC, if the NASA history office would be interested in writing a history of this, um, planning exercise and, um, Harley at the time explained that it was critical, a critical input to the process for developing the vision for space exploration.


So Steve and I started writing the book and we were simply writing a history of the decadal planning team and wanted. Once we got into, we really wanted to see to test Harley’s, um, claim that, that this book, that this planning team led directly to the vision or led in some fashion to the vision for space exploration that required us to write many more chapters, do a lot more research, which explains why it took a little longer than we expected it to.


Um, but in the end, I think we did a full job, um, explaining how. The decadal planning team fit into the larger history of the vision for space exploration. So with a decadal planning team, a lot happens as part of that process. You’ve got a lot of people who are coming at this, but when they first started to ask you about doing this in 2004, A lot has happened since 2004, which to me begs the question.


If you’re, we’re sitting here today, 2019, who are the biggest drivers for today? Space travel is that civilian is that military is that commercial because you seem to have a lot more pressing needs for each of those constituencies today, then. You did 15 years ago, who is that big driver today? I don’t think you need to the choose one.


I think they’re all incredibly important. Um, each one of them, I don’t, I don’t know how you would divide it up in terms of saying which one, uh, dominates, but obviously military is extraordinarily important and is going to become more and more important as, as we go forward. But, uh, commercial space is becoming huge, but it also.


Works very closely with the defense department and with civilian space. Yeah. Yeah. I would just add that. Um, even though some people like to talk about the so-called new space movement, and it is indeed burgeoning in the last 10, 15 years or so, uh, let’s say 10 years. Civil space. Hasn’t, hasn’t taken a back seat in any way and neither has national security space.


So they’re all critically important and they all have their own sort of drivers for why they need space. So I, as Glen said, I wouldn’t feel the need to pick just one. Okay. Engineering and costs are certainly complex impediments, too. Anything you go to do in space, but what are the policy and political challenges to space travel that you Chronicle in this work?


Yeah, one of the main things that, uh, one of the main themes that comes out in the book is the desire for the people who are shaping the policy, the staff folks, as well as the higher-level policy makers. This desire to send humans beyond low earth orbit. Right? And so this has been sort of a longstanding theme in space history.


And what I would say is that, uh, going beyond low earth orbit is inherently challenging. There are technical challenges to doing that, and we know. At this point in time, we’ve had enough experience going into space that we know sort of the basic parameters of the challenges. We know the questions. But we don’t know the answers yet.


Right. And so for, I’ll give you a couple of examples for, for example, re radiation in space is deleterious to people’s health, right? That you’re when you’re above the van Allen radiation belts, you’re subject to a lot more radiation and that increases the cancer risk for astronauts. So that’s very concerning, right.


So we know what the problem is, but we don’t know exactly. What type of shielding will be most appropriate or most cost-effective right. So there, there are many other issues like this one I’ll mention one other, which is that if you’re going beyond a well-worth orbit, one persistent theme is sending humans to Mars.


Right? And so if you, if you’re near Mars, You’re far enough away from the earth that even at the speed of light, you can’t have real time communications. So it’s a totally different ball game than being, um, in near earth space, like on the moon, right. So, what this means is if you have a technical, if you’re an astronaut on a mission to Mars, you have a technical problem, which you’re going to have, you can’t call it back to mission control and have them troubleshoot the issue.


In real time, you have to be prepared to make changes on your own. Right? So that’s just one other issue that we know is there it’s one other challenge, but we don’t know exactly what the answer is. All this by way of saying, we know what the challenges are. We don’t know what the answers are. And so we need a lot.


We need significant resources to commit to that. And that begs the question of, well, what’s going to, um, what’s going to be the driver to commit significant resources. What’s the political. Reason to have more resources Glen. So I would just say our system, yeah. Government itself is, is an impediment to sustaining space plans over a long period of time.


Um, you, you have change of administrations and some of the changes that happen as you switched parties are kind of marginal or changes in name only. But some of them are significant. And so with space policy over the long term with any, any major program, something that takes 30, 40 years to do, um, every four years you hold your breath or every two years hold your breath.


And, and hopefully that, that next administration isn’t going to derail that whole entire project. And now if it’s, if it’s one system. Yeah, one capsule or, or one launch for you called that that’s I think a little easier to sustain, but it’s a whole well-defined program. It’s, it’s got to have some level of flexibility in its DNA to be able to, to sustain all the political wins.


You have a section in your book that Chronicles the spatial Columbia accident, which occurred in February of 2003. Did that accident have a bigger impact on the space community than the loss of challenger in 1986? I’m not sure about whether it’s bigger or not, but it was certainly huge. I want me to just tell you a little anecdote about this.


When we interviewed Sean O’Keefe, who is the NASA administrator at the time of the Columbia accident, we interviewed him in the course of this book. To find out his role on the vision for space exploration. We sat down and we were talking to him. And at one point I think I sort of, in retrospect, sort of foolishly said something said something like, well, let’s not talk too much about Columbia.


I don’t want to suck up all your time, sir. Talking about Columbia. So, and he corrected me and he said, well, Columbia is key to the story. Uh, we wouldn’t have had the vision without the Columbia accident, unfortunately, or fortunately. And so we realized that. The Columbia accident was really just a key part, a key driver that made the vision possible.


There. Sometimes people say with tragedy comes opportunity or with challenges come opportunities, right? And so some of the people who were involved in the shaping of the vision for space exploration certainly realized this. And we’re also cautious about. Appearing flip or opportunistic, um, about being opportunistic after a tragedy like this.


So they were aware of this, but there was also, it was a real key turning point for the agency. Steven, you were here at NASA when the Columbia accident occurred. And so. There certainly is the personal and professional memories that you have from that time. I wonder as you were going through this book, and even as you were interviewing Sean O’Keefe, who was the administrator then?


Was there something new that stood out to you that you had not learned or had observed firsthand living through that experience? Well, I would just say that. I, I do remember what it was like at the time. I remember, um, speaking to somebody that day, who I, an engineer that I had known for a while and respected a lot who knew a lot about the shuttle.


And he was explaining to me basically what happened. And all of a sudden, I felt like I was just caught up short in realizing how fragile the whole space transportation system, the shuttle was. As a system that, um, you know, a piece of foam, a chunk of foam that weighed a little over a pound could do a whole mission that way and bring down the shadow and with it, seven astronauts alive.


Um, I just hadn’t really realized how, what are we. And figuratively thin the skin of the shuttle, the orbiter itself was all of a sudden, I just realized, wow, this space is so contingent upon so many different things going right. That it is really, um, it is really risky. Glen, you came into NASA shortly after Columbia.


I’m curious on your observations as, as a historian, sort of looking back on that. I mean, you certainly committed to an organization that’s just been through what was the trauma, but here you are coming into a place that’s fresh off of that. Experience, when you look back, are there any things that leap out to you as to Columbia and what occurred and how that changed space travel?


So, yeah, I came in right after four or in that period of time between the Columbia accident and the return to flight. My role here for the first couple of years was as a historian, but then I switched over for. About a year and a half to be the executive secretary for the international space station program.


And in, uh, in that role, I got to participate in several space launches and could see. Kind of had a, had a front row seat to how, uh, meticulous and careful the leaders of the space flight program, particularly Bill Gerstenmaier was about how we were going to proceed with the space shuttle and with the space station.


Um, just the really genius of the engineering leadership in this agency to return the shuttle, to fly, to keep the space station going and to also then later, Uh, successfully go for several years without an accident, um, and to retire the shuttle. That was for me a very important experience. There are a lot of different programs that are Chronicle in the course of this book.


And I’m curious. What are some of the biggest lessons that future space program leaders should take away from the programs that you Chronicle? I mean, both of you have said you are available to the respective leaders of your agencies to provide them context and, and counsel on what was done before. What are some of the big lessons that those future space program leaders should take away?


Well, I, I would just say that, um, Critical is to get rid of programs that might be standing in the way. So in order to have to move beyond. The shuttle generate the shuttle station generation of space flight. You had to end shuttle flights to get beyond lower earth orbit and to start planning for planetary Newman, planetary exploration you had to get rid of or go beyond what was there and figure out how you were going to do that.


That’s a pretty big deal. Um, I would say also. Don’t discount the importance of mid-level people in the policy process and in developing plans, they’re critical. They can take a little more time than the senior leaders and they can cue up, um, big decisions in a way, uh, that that really can take advantage of their skills.


What are some of the lessons that never seem to be learned? There’s always a couple of things that gee, we keep, uh, encountering the same type of problem, but people keep, seem to making the same mistake, time and time again. What are, what are some of those things that you found? Right? I would say there has to be a truly compelling, underlying rationale to do big things in space.


Especially, uh, with regards to human space flight and sending people beyond the lower earth orbit is an example of that. So those of us who work in the space community, Oh, basically feel that spaces cool. And many other people do as well, but that’s not enough. We really need an underlying compelling rationale to, uh, to generate the overall public support and thus the overall resources.


Another thing. That people never seem to quite understand. Um, it might be that, uh, presidential leadership is necessary, but insufficient. And there’s a whole book that was written on this. Um, before even the vision for space exploration, uh, was announced, but by two esteem, historians, Roger Alanis and Howard McCurdy.


But this is something that, um, I used to hear frequently in the halls of NASA that, uh, before the vision. Space exploration. All we need is a president like John Kennedy to stand up and throw his support behind NASA. And then everything will be hunky Dory. After that, after the vision, I didn’t hear that so much.


So perhaps people have learned, but it’s a fundamental truth that there has to be an underlying, really compelling rationale that everybody can get behind. So for example, In the sixties, it was the cold war, right? That was the underlying rationale that generated the space race. There’s not quite something comparable right now.


Politics and budgets have always played a role in space decisions. What were some of the observations that stand out to you in the past 20 or so years are the politics and budget fights getting harder. I’m not sure that they’re getting harder. The issues have always existed. And I do think that what a lot of people say it’s true, that space is a bipartisan issue.


I think what we might be seeing in the last X number of years is sort of a broader. Political issue, which is that it’s hard for the Congress to pass long-term budget, um, let alone, uh, for even a year we tend to devolve into continuing resolutions and that makes planning for. Long-term ventures like space exploration, really difficult.


So for example, in other nations, they have a longer term budgeting process like the, in Europe, the U S five-year budgets, I believe. And so they, they can sort of, um, plan ahead on what a bit more then weekend historians are in many ways. Forensic scientist and taking a look about decisions that were made events that occurred, uh, actions like that.


When you take a look at looking at the vision for space exploration, which is a central tenant within your book, what prevented the vision for space exploration from being more successful? Well, I think some of the areas where, in my opinion, it falls short. Are those that were, were there at the, at the beginning, which is not enough funding president didn’t approve a large enough budget for the first five years.


And then even beyond that, the funding was always far too limited. And then, um, the. I think the retirement of the shuttle without a space vehicle afterwards was a significant flaw as well. That needs to be mentioned. It is for the United States to do dependent on Russia for at least nine years to get to the space station.


As I think under Qataris, both internationally and in space, the rise of new space, commercial leaders like yourself. Based sex is your Blue Origins, your Virgin Galactic’s OneWebs and others has brought a lot of change to what is always been a very challenging environment. What did you find about them in the course of, or observe about them as you were looking at the history of vision for space exploration and the post-Columbia era?


Uh, how were they changing the way NASA and the defense department engaged? So commercialization was. In its early years. I mean, we’ve always had contractors building systems for NASA. But commercialization, as we know it now was in its really infancy. At that time, there was only one proposal out of all the ones considered in the NSC policymaking process that involve commercial space.


And so, um, it really. Wasn’t there, but now, I mean, we’re obviously going through this tremendous revolution where we’ve got significant innovations in how we are taking supplies to the space station and other space launch technology. So I think going forward. I think going forward, it’s just going to grow more.


Yeah. The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these so-called new space companies really came to prominence after the vision for space exploration was unveiled in 2004. So space X and blue origin. A lot of those companies really became bigger deals, um, in more recent memory. Um, I would still argue though that even though they’ve they’re, they are revolutionizing space.


That the federal government does have many essential roles in space, such as doing human exploration, still, um, national security regulation of debris space, traffic management. There are many different critical functions that the federal government still needs to be involved in. So it, um, even though it’s a big change, the federal government is not getting out of space in any way.


We’re in the midst of celebrating the 50th anniversary. So some of the Apollo era is. Greatest accomplishments that I’m curious as it’s two historians that I’ve got sitting here with me. I’m curious if you could interview any of the notable space leaders from that time. Who would you want to question and what would you be asking them?


Well, this is Steve again. It’s funny. Um, when I first started it in the history division many years ago, one of the first projects I had was to work with a guy named Robert Siemens, Bob Siemens, who is that NASA NASA deputy administrator for much of the sixties during the Apollo program, he was working on his memoir.


And, uh, my job was to sort of edited and shepherd it through the publication process. So I got to know him at least a little bit and talk with him over time. But at the time to be Frank, I was kind of young and I didn’t really think to ask him a lot of good questions like you’re proposing. Now what came across though, was his sort of emphasis on teamwork and letting people, wedding, technical people.


Do their jobs as much as possible. He, I think he viewed himself as sort of an overall manager. Um, he, at the time his, his job was to sort of coordinate the inner workings of NASA. And, and so there’s a lot that can be said about cooperation and teamwork, especially for such a big venture as Apollo. But in retrospect, I wish I had asked him more specific questions, Glen.


Well, I had the opportunity while I was here to work closely with, uh, two astronauts from the Apollo era. That was a general Tom Stafford and, uh, Joe angle. And, uh, I’d never bothered to do an oral history interview with them. Although I know there are, there are several and I never spent as much. Hi, I’m asking them about their past as, as I wish I had, I did, I did have many good conversations and they have just so many funny stories that.


I don’t think I’ve been captured in the historical record, that alone would be just a blast to get down on paper, no book of advantage anecdotes by any one of those people. Uh, even the managers across the board about, uh, would be, you know, a great read. It would be a great read. I’d like to say one other thing, which is, I do think, um, it’s this 50th anniversary has been a fantastic time to go back and look at the Apollo era.


But I think we need to do a lot more history on the shuttle ever and on the space station, period, and, and this period going forward since, uh, the vision for space exploration, which I think is a different era. Well, Skylab is another one of those that will have a number of 50th we’ll have 50th anniversary is coming up and is certainly I think an underappreciated and a under-recognized accomplishment for what went on there as well.


Okay. Uh, so, so let me ask, um, you guys have looked at vision for space exploration. You’ve talked to a number of people. What advice do you think the people who were involved with the vision for space exploration and even the Apollo era, uh, what advice do you think they would. Be giving to leaders today as NASA aspires to get back to the moon by 2024?


Well, I would say is you have to show progress. I mean, I think that’s critical and that’s something Steve eye sockets and Gil Klinger who are featured prominently in the book, um, would, would probably bring up, um, you can’t have a 30-year plan and, and not. Reach any milestones in that time period, you have to have some incremental goals that you achieve and you have to let the public and the people who are paying the money now.


Yeah, I think that’s really critical, um, because. Space exploration is such a term adventure that you have to have something you have to have near-term goals as well. Just as Glen said, I would also just add that the importance of teamwork and potentially now the importance of international.


Collaboration, just like with the international space station. Um, some people might argue that, uh, one of them main, uh, triumphs of the space station is the international collaboration. Even more so than the actual technical feat of building that this book is not your first effort together. What else have you two worked on?


Well, we work together in the NASA, the history office for, uh, over two years. And, um, during that time, we, we worked on a lot of small projects in the office. And one thing, uh, we, one of the things we were involved in was a conference on the societal impact of space flight. And, um, we both kind of helped shape the program for that conference.


And I wrote a paper. Uh, for that, that, uh, book that Steve Thick and Roger Lawn is published. When you guys finish this book and you shut down your laptop, you stepped away from it. What was the first thing that really stuck out to you the most in the history that you were viewed and shared in this book?


I think people really misunderstand what the seminal achievement of the vision for space exploration was. I think everyone sees as a program that died in the next administration, but really what it did was it cleared the way for a new era of space flight. And for me, that that’s the critical. Message from this, this pump.


Yeah. And be more specific. Sometimes Glen and I have talked about, and Glen’s mentioned the idea that this was like a third paradigm. If you will, of space flight, um, specifically human space flight. So you had the Apollo era and you had the shuttle era of. Going to the moon and having roots relative access to low earth orbit.


But this is different. This is trying to send humans beyond world war II and that’s. So this was trying to set, set the way, pave a path for that third paradigm of sending humans beyond her well-worth orbit. The book is called origins of 21st century space travel. Where can people get this book? It is available for free download from under the e-book section.


So just go to search for eBooks, and we’ll come right up from there. Any other future projects you guys can share with us? I think there are a lot of really good studies that can be written about the last 20 years of space flight. And hope the NASA history office has a big role. Great Glen Asner Stephen Garber.


Thank you both for your time. The book is called Origins of 21st Century Space Travel, a history of NASA’s decadal planning team and division for space exploration, 1999 to 2004. It’s written by Glen Asner and Stephen Garber. You can pick that book up for free, which is always in our budgets. Uh, you can pick that up for free by going to the website and searching under eBooks.


Again, Origins of 21st Century Space Travel, a history of NASA decadal planning team, and the vision for space exploration, 1999 to 2004. Steve and Glen, thank you both for your time and joining the Space4U podcast. This is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. Please pay close attention to what’s going on with the Space Foundation via our website it’s space, as well as all of our social media properties at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, because remember at the Space Foundation, we always have space for you.


Thank you.

Listen to the Podcast

Space4U Podcast: Glen Asner & Stephen Garber, Historians & Authors