NASA Abruptly Reassigns Top Human Exploration Program Officials as Trump Moon Mandate Looms

NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate William Gerstenmaier ast a press conference in June 2019.
Photo: Bill Ingalls (AP)

NASA’s longtime associate administrator for its human exploration program, William Gerstenmaier, has been re-assigned to be a special adviser to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard in what seems like a fairly clear demotion, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

Gerstenmaier, who has worked for NASA since 1977, had overseen “some of NASA’s most high-profile programs and is known as a steady and methodical force at the agency’s headquarters,” the Post wrote, recently working with Commercial Crew Program contractors Boeing and SpaceX on their replacements for the retired Space Shuttle. His re-assignment appears to be the result of the White House’s push to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 instead of its prior goal of 2028, an initiative abruptly set by Vice President Mike Pence in March and that perhaps not coincidentally would overlap with the end of Donald Trump’s second term in office.

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NASA’s assistant deputy associate administrator of human exploration, Bill Hill, the second in command, was also reassigned to a special adviser position with NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

“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,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote in an email to staff, according to the Post. “In an effort to meet this challenge, I have decided to make leadership changes to the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate.”

Former astronaut and current Deputy Associate Administrator Ken Bowersox will now take over leadership of the human exploration program, Bridenstine reportedly wrote in his email.

In addition to the Commercial Crew Program, Gerstenmaier has overseen the operations of the International Space Station (which the Trump administration has floated plans to privatize) and NASA’s Space Launch System (which the Post noted has frustrated the Trump administration due to being “years behind schedule and way over budget”). As the Post reported, he was also overseeing the lunar return program, Artemis, which the White House was similarly frustrated with due to its belief that the project isn’t moving fast enough.

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In fact, per the Verge, on Wednesday, Gerstenmaier had appeared before Congress to talk up Artemis during a hearing on the future of the ISS and low Earth orbit exploration:

“NASA’s Artemis program will build a sustainable, open architecture that returns humanity to our nearest neighbor,” Gerstenmaier wrote in his witness testimony for the hearing. “We are building for the long term, and this time are going to the Moon to stay. We are designing an open, durable, reusable architecture that will support deep space exploration for decades to come.”

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It remains unclear, according to the Verge, whether Congress will approve the $1.6 billion in additional funding for the Artemis program requested by the White House. The administration suggested the additional money come from the Pell Grant college financial aid program, the Verge reported.

Some experts say the White House hasn’t proposed a clear reason for astronauts to actually return to the moon by 2024 and that the rushed timetable could result in serious safety concerns even if it was fully funded, according to Popular Science. Prior reporting by the Post has suggested that many NASA employees are skeptical that the target is achievable without gutting other missions or that the agency currently has the funding necessary to achieve it. Bridenstine has acknowledged he needs $20 billion to 30 billion on top of NASA’s current budget to pull off the mission, while the president himself has seemed... let’s say, confused about NASA’s directives.

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However, Pence’s 2024 mandate is not so much a target as a thinly veiled threat. In his speech announcing the initiative, he said, “If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the Moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”

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Of note, a recent report from Ars Technica citing “multiple sources inside and outside NASA” reported disputes between the agency’s human spaceflight administrators and the White Houses House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Those sources said that OMB was trying to kill Gateway, a tiny planned Moon-orbiting space station intended to serve as a midpoint between Earth and a lunar landing site, under the belief the mission could be cheaper and faster without it. They also said they suspected Gerstenmaier was pushing for Gateway due to the possibility that a Democratic nominee could win the election and revert to the original 2028 date or restore Gateway’s original purpose as a “deep space proving ground” for a Mars mission.

“When someone like Elizabeth Warren gets elected, what are they going to do?” a source told Ars Technica. “Are they going to say we love the Trump space idea? Hell no. They’re going to say we don’t want to do that. Gerstenmaier has been around this block before. He’s trying to cover all of the bases.”

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Gerstenmaier also said earlier this year that NASA would not skip the “green run” test of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s core stage, which NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has advised is critical to “ensure safe operations,” according to Ars Technica. Skipping the test could save six to nine months and give NASA more leeway in achieving the 2024 target, and Bridenstine has suggested it could be shortened or skipped.

However, the safety panel warned that “[s]horter-duration engine firings at the launch pad will not achieve an understanding of the operational margins, and could result in severe consequences.” NASA Spaceflight recently reported that though NASA leadership recommended the test, a final determination on its status has not been made.

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post