With mounting pressure to return astronauts to the Moon within the next five years, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has informed staff that key figures, including the widely respected director of human spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier, will be replaced as part of a major shake-up at the agency.
The move, which has come as a shock to most people in the space industry, will see Gerstenmaier’s deputy, Ken Bowersox, a space station astronaut and five-flight shuttle veteran take over the role on an acting basis. Gerstenmaier meanwhile will serve as “special advisor” to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. The reassignment will be effectively immediately, wrote Bridenstine in a memo to staff late on Wednesday.
Also targeted in the reshuffle is Bill Hill, who played a key role during the Space Shuttle Program. Hill, who previously served as the deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, will now be a special advisor to Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Tom Whitmeyer will take over as deputy associate administrator on an acting basis.
“As you know, NASA has been given a bold challenge to put the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, with a focus on the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars,” Bridenstine wrote. “In an effort to meet this challenge, I have decided to make leadership changes to the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate.”
The memo went on to praise the leadership qualities of both Hill and Gerstenmaier, who started with the agency in 1977 as an engineer, but little was given away at the time as to why these two were being shunted in to the role of ‘special advisor’; an act that some in the industry see as something of demotion, as these positions have few, if any, responsibilities and are roles often given to those who cannot be terminated outright.
Since the announcement however, in an interview with Fox News, Bridenstine has said that the duo's longevity is one of the reasons for swapping roles around. “He’s been at NASA for 42 years and we love him,” Bridenstine said of Gerstenmaier – known simply as Gerst within the agency. “And in fact, we have an opportunity now to land on the Moon in the year 2024 because of the hard work that he has put into the program.”
But, continued Bridenstine, “sometimes we need to remember, he started working at NASA when I was 2 years old, and there comes a time in every career when it’s time to move on.”
“Can’t overstate the importance of Gerst to NASA over the past few decades. He was the glue that kept NASA and Congress moving forward after Constellation,” tweeted Garret Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who is now a University of Southern California professor. Others too have expressed their bewilderment as to why someone with Gerstenmaier’s level of knowledge would be replaced at such a critical time when the agency is ramping up its efforts to return to the Moon, as directed by the Trump Administration.
“The Trump Administration’s ill-defined crash program to land astronauts on the Moon in 2024 was going to be challenging enough to to achieve under the best of circumstances,” says House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. “Removing experienced engineering leadership from that effort and the rest of the nation’s unmanned spaceflight programs at such a crucial point in time seems misguided at best,” Johnson said.
Some have speculated that the role-shuffling stems from either the White House or agency leaders who are unhappy with the apparent slow progress of the Artemis lunar program and its key elements, the Orion spacecraft and the behemoth rocket that will carry it to the Moon and beyond, the Space Launch System.
When asked specifically why Gerstenmaier was reassigned in the Fox interview, Bridenstine replied, “I don’t think there’s anything that he was not doing. I just think it’s time for new leadership.”