WASHINGTON – The long-term leader of NASA's human space flight programs has been replaced as the agency competes to meet President Trump's ambitious goal of returning American astronauts to the moon in five years, a major reorganization that has surprised to the space community.
William Gerstenmaier, known within the agency simply as "Gerst", started working at NASA in 1977 as an engineer and rose to the rank of associate administrator for human exploration and operations in 2004. But according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, they are precisely those examples. Fides that he won the boot.
"He has been with NASA for 42 years and we love him, and in fact, we now have the opportunity to land on the Moon in 2024 due to the hard work he has put into the program," Bridenstine said of Gerstenmaier in an exclusive interview. with Fox News. "But sometimes we must remember that he started working at NASA when he was 2 years old, and at each race there comes a time when it's time to move on."
When asked about what Gerstenmaier specifically earned his demotion, Bridenstine said: "I do not think there's anything I'm not doing, I just think it's time for a new leadership."
The Chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the House of Representatives, Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said she is puzzled by the decision to abruptly eliminate someone with the level of institutional knowledge of Gerstenmaier.
"The Trump Administration's poorly defined fault schedule for astronauts to land on the Moon in 2024 was going to be challenging enough to achieve it under the best of circumstances. Eliminating the experienced engineering leadership from that effort and the rest of the nation's human space flight programs at such a crucial moment in time seems, at best, wrong, "Johnson said.
For months, the Trump administration has been blunt about its frustration with the space agency's track record of running over the budget and delaying.
"NASA must become a leaner, more responsible and more agile organization," said Vice President Mike Pence in March, when he announced the new Moonshot program. "If NASA is not currently able to land US astronauts on the Moon in five years, we must change the organization, not the mission."
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The organization changed Wednesday night when Gerstenmaier and its chief representative, Bill Hill, were reassigned to special assistant positions. Former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox was named interim head of human exploration, but Bridenstine is launching a nationwide search to find a permanent replacement.
"We are moving fast to go to the Moon. We need a new generation of leaders to come together and move towards the goal, "said Bridenstine.
Representative Johnson argued that the open search is a sign that the reorganization was ill-conceived.
"You do not change your horse halfway, or if you try to do it, it's better that you have the other horse ready to go," Johnson said.
NASA's new Moonshot program is called Artemis because it is the "twin sister" of the Apollo program that achieved the first lunar landing 50 years ago next week. (In ancient Greek mythology, Artemis and Apollo were the twin offspring of the god Zeus and the goddess Leto).
Bridenstine insists that Gerstenmaier was on board with the accelerated schedule of Artemis.
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"He helped us create this timeline. He gave us guidance that this was possible, "said Bridenstine." In fact, we have the opportunity to land [on the Moon] in 2024 for his efforts. "
But those efforts were not enough for Gerstenmaier to keep his job. When asked if other organizational changes were being made, Bridenstine replied: "Not at this time."