As NASA scrambles to meet U.S. President Donald Trump's mandate to return humans to the moon by 2024, two longtime heads of NASA's human exploration wing were demoted Wednesday in a slew of administrative shakeups, officials said in an internal memo. The widely-respected Gerstenmaier is a Nasa veteran who joined the agency in 1977, rising to become one of its top managers, overseeing the space shuttle program and U.S. operations on the International Space Station before becoming head of HEO.
Gerstenmaier, who had been at the agency since 1977, had been working with Boeing and SpaceX as they develop spacecraft to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. To meet this "bold challenge", Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an email to employees that Bill Gerstenmaier, head of the agency's Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) missions directorate, has been removed from his position and assigned an advisory role, the Washington Post and other United States news outlets.
The move comes as the White House has shown frustration with the pace of getting to the moon, and some of the problems that have plagued NASA's marquee efforts, including the massive rocket it's building, known as the Space Launch System, which is years behind schedule and way over budget.
He said "if NASA's not now capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission".
In a March speech, he took aim at NASA's bureaucracy, saying the agency "must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization. If NASA's not now capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission". "We're also racing against our worst enemy: complacency".
"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's email said.
"In an effort to meet this challenge, I have decided to make leadership changes to the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate".
The biggest change to rock the agency is the demotion of Bill Gerstenmaier, who was leading the efforts to return humans to the lunar surface. Former astronaut Ken Bowersox will be the acting head of the section, according to Bridenstine's email. Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of human exploration, has also been reassigned as a special adviser to Steve Jurczyk, NASA's associate administrator.