NASA staffing changes surprise fans, critics of Artemis moon program
By Cat Hofacker|July 11, 2019
NASA’s shuffling of its human spaceflight team has lawmakers and space watchers working to determine the likely impacts on the Trump administration’s plan to return Americans to the moon by 2024.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Texas Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said in a statement that she was “baffled” by the overhaul.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine informed NASA employees in a memo that “effective immediately” Bill Gerstenmaier will be replaced by former astronaut Ken Bowersox as associate administrator for human exploration and operations on an acting basis. Bridenstine said he intends to detail Gerstenmaier to a special adviser role. One of Gerstenmaier’s deputies, Bill Hill, was shifted to a special adviser role from his position as deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development. Hill was in charge of the late and over-budget Space Launch System rockets that would launch astronauts toward the moon.
Johnson said the administration’s “ill-defined crash program to land astronauts on the Moon in 2024 was going to be challenging enough to achieve under the best of circumstances. Removing experienced engineering leadership from that effort and the rest of the nation’s human spaceflight programs at such a crucial point in time seems misguided at best.”
Republican leadership of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the aviation and space subcommittee did not respond to requests for comment.
Bridenstine told employees that NASA remained committed to the 2024 plan and that the leadership changes would position the agency “to meet this challenge.”
The shakeup comes after congressional auditors criticized NASA’s account of the cost of the lunar program. The June report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office accuses NASA of being “misleading” in its estimates of the cost growth of SLS. NASA, in its response to the report, said it “takes exception” to what it called “the unnecessarily negative language” of the GAO. NASA acknowledged “significant” challenges in the SLS program but said the issues “are commensurate with first-time production programs on a large scale and should not be unexpected.”
Despite the financial uncertainty, “Artemis still has a chance” because the staffing changes show NASA is “serious about accomplishing their goal,” said Jim Muncy, a former congressional staffer and now president of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
“Ultimately the administration had to decide whether they were willing to change leadership to pursue their goals and strategy,” he said. “They decided. Some people may not like it, and there may be more changes required down the road.”
Amanda Miller contributed to this report.