CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The head of NASA's human exploration directorate was removed from his position in an abrupt move announced late Wednesday, a major shift for the agency as it targets a return to the moon by 2024 and next week celebrates the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
William Gerstenmaier, head of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, was immediately replaced by Ken Bowersox, Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a memo obtained by Florida Today. Gerstenmaier will serve in a demoted role as special advisor to the agency's deputy administrator.
Bowersox is a five-time space shuttle astronaut, 20-plus-year veteran of NASA and former Navy aviator. His past experiences include three years at SpaceX, too.
Bridenstine cited the 2024 moon challenge, now known as the Artemis program, as the primary reason for the shakeup.
"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," he said in the memo. "In an effort to meet this challenge, I have decided to make leadership changes to the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate."
Gerstenmaier has been with the agency since 1977, where he's overseen work on the space shuttle, construction of the International Space Station, and the development of NASA's next-generation rocket system designed to take humans back to the moon and Mars – the Space Launch System and Orion capsule.
"I am grateful for (William's) leadership," Bridenstine said. "We, as a nation, are thankful for his service in advancing America’s priorities and expanding the limits of science, technology, and exploration."
The shakeup wasn't contained to Gerstenmaier, however: His deputy associate administrator for human exploration, Bill Hill, was also moved to a new position as a special advisor. Also a longtime NASA veteran, Hill worked through the shuttle program and helped develop SLS.
As of Thursday afternoon, NASA had not yet officially released a statement about the leadership changes.
What this means for Artemis
The Trump administration's renewed push to the moon is on a tight deadline. To reach the surface of the moon with humans by 2024, NASA will have to get almost everything right so as to not fall behind – there is little room for setbacks.
"The deadline was intended to exert pressure," space policy expert John Logsdon said on Pence's push for the 2024 mission earlier this year. "He said basically if the people in place aren't going to do the job, we'll find somebody else."
According to Logsdon, Bridenstine has been looking at his agency with a new set of eyes and wants new ways of thinking.
"Gerstenmaier has played a very important role for a long time but he's also been there for a long time," Logsdon said. "If you want a new approach to doing things you probably have to be somebody else in that position"
But this isn't the first time a top-level NASA official has been replaced while the agency targets missions to the lunar surface.
“It’s not the first time this has happened that someone has been rather unceremoniously moved out," said Roger Launius, former chief historian for NASA and now with Launius Historical Services. In 1962, Brainerd Holmes, head of NASA's manned spaceflight program, was replaced by Air Force Gen. Samuel Phillips.
“Is this like that? I don’t know,” Launius said. “But it could be.”
Dale Ketcham, chief of strategic alliance at Space Florida, the state's space-related economic development agency, said the shift is major for NASA. But it could also open doors to more disruptive approaches.
“There are three parts to any exploration mission: The risks, the cost and the schedule," Ketcham said. "Gerst had been representative of the dominance of the school of thought that says the highest priority is always risk. I think there is a school of thought that is more driven by the commercial sector that they’re prepared to assume more risk.”
Ketcham believes the change in mentality and perspectives driving the program may very well lead in alterations to Artemis' trajectory.
"This likely is a very powerful signal that things are going to change," he said.
But no matter what lies over the horizon for NASA, one thing remains certain for some: NASA is much more than a few key leaders.
"For many people, he was a stabilizing force, but it doesn't have to be as destabilizing as those raising concerns," former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told FLORIDA TODAY. "NASA is more than one person."
"But you can never take away the good he did for the agency. Gerst was amazing at management and leadership," she said.
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