The Delicious Evolution of Ice Cream: From NASA’s “Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone” to Commercial Space


During the Ars Frontiers conference, Lori Garver, former deputy NASA Administrator, discussed her efforts to revolutionize the space agency under the Obama administration. Despite facing resistance from the entrenched bureaucracy, Garver and her team were determined to tap into the emerging commercial space industry. This article delves into the challenges they faced and the subsequent triumphs that have transformed the space industry.

The Giant Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

Garver highlighted the resistance to change within NASA, comparing it to a “giant self-licking ice cream cone.” The agency’s long-standing contractors were hesitant to embrace new funding mechanisms that could potentially reduce their funding. However, Garver and her team believed that NASA should leverage private companies for both cargo and crew flights, an idea that faced significant opposition from traditional space industry stakeholders.

Breaking Barriers

Despite the opposition, NASA’s commercial space initiative gained traction. In 2020, SpaceX successfully flew its first astronauts to the International Space Station, followed by Boeing’s recent demonstration of its docking capabilities with the space station. These achievements validated the decision to involve commercial providers and marked a significant step forward in reducing the cost of human space travel.

Lowering Costs, Expanding Opportunities

Garver emphasized that the primary goal of the commercial crew program was to reduce the cost of sending people into orbit. While prioritizing safety, the initiative aimed to capitalize on the readiness of private companies to assume responsibilities previously held by the government. By shifting this burden, NASA could allocate its billions towards unique mission objectives. The transition from spending billions per astronaut to private companies charging $55 million per seat significantly improved the value for taxpayers and opened up new opportunities.

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Spaceflight’s Commercial Renaissance

Over a decade since the inception of these programs, the commercial space industry has thrived. The United States remains at the forefront of spaceflight due to the influx of billions of dollars from investors supporting startups or establishing their own companies. These ventures have exhibited their potential in various areas, such as providing radar tracking for troop movements or delivering Starlink Internet connectivity to war-torn communities, enhancing the nation’s capabilities in the face of global challenges.

Overcoming Obstacles

Garver acknowledged the initial backlash from Congress when they presented their budget request to involve the private sector. However, her interactions overseas revealed envy from other nations, signaling that they were on the right track. The path to revolutionizing the space industry was not without its hurdles, but the successes and advancements achieved by embracing commercial space have cemented its importance.

NASA Image


Lori Garver’s determination and vision for NASA led to the transformation of the space agency by incorporating the commercial space industry. This paradigm shift has not only reduced costs but also propelled the United States forward in space exploration. The iconic “self-licking ice cream cone” metaphor serves as a reminder of the resistance to change within established institutions. Embracing new approaches has proven instrumental in shaping the future of space travel and opening up possibilities beyond our atmosphere.

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