The sudden elimination of NASA's human exploration chief, William Gerstenmaier, on Wednesday is a clear signal that the White House is increasingly frustrated with the agency's efforts to return humans to the surface of the moon for the first time. year 2024.
The administration of Donald Trump is focused on the laser on that date, which would come during a second term of his presidency, in case he was re-elected.
But despite the mandate, NASA has continued to fight against the delays and costs that have threatened the program.
And the overthrow of one of the longest service bulwarks in the agency shows how much the White House and NASA's politically appointed leadership are willing to interrupt NASA and try to break the bureaucracy that many think has stopped its exploration efforts for years.
In March, Mike Pence, the vice president of EE. UU., Shot the first warning shot, announcing a new accelerated calendar for NASA's lunar landing plans.
Instead of taking humans there by 2028, he said, his new cargo would be in five years. He put the NASA leaders on notice, saying that if they could not complete the mission, they would be responsible.
"To achieve this, NASA must become a leaner, more responsible and more agile organization," he said.
"If NASA is not currently able to take American astronauts to the Moon in five years, we must change the organization, not the mission."
Industry officials said that Mr. Pence and others in the White House have been furious over the agency's lack of progress, particularly in relation to the massive rocket known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, that NASA has been developing for more than a decade, but still has not fly.
White House officials expressed their dismay at NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at a meeting in recent weeks, according to a space industry official who is not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations.
In an interview on Thursday night, Mr. Bridenstine flatly denied it and said: "If you are frustrated with the efforts of the agency, they have not told me because we are moving to reach the Moon in 2024."
He added: "I just want to be clear, this was my decision, I did not get this from the White House at all."
There was also tension between Mr. Bridenstine and Mr. Gerstenmaier, officials said.
Mr. Bridenstine had repeatedly said, for example, that he would not cut other programs within the agency to finance the lunar program, known as Artemis.
But Mr. Gerstenmaier contradicted it during a meeting of the advisory council, and said recently: "We're going to have to look for some efficiencies and make some internal cuts to the agency, and that's where it will be difficult," he said, according to SpaceNews.
The National Space Council declined to comment, but an administration official said: "This was an internal decision of NASA, and the statement of Administrator Bridenstine speaks for itself."
Mr. Bridenstine said he thinks "very well" of Mr. Gerstenmaier, said there was no tension between them and praised his 42 years of service in the agency.
However, he added that he had been thinking about making a change for some time and had grown tired of the delays in the repeated schedules and the excessive hardware costs necessary to fulfill the 2024 mandate of the White House.
"At some point there comes a time for new leadership," he said. "Cost and schedule are important. And I intend to make sure that we use every dollar of taxpayers wisely. "
Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, criticized the decision to remove someone so abruptly with Mr. Gerstenmaier's enormous institutional knowledge.
"The badly defined fault schedule of the Trump administration for astronauts to land on the Moon in 2024 was going to be challenging enough to achieve it under the best of circumstances," he said in a statement.
"Eliminating an experienced engineering leader 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."
However, the White House is willing to show real progress and is tired of reports of delays in some of NASA's most critical programs.
For years, the SLS has faced criticism for being perpetually behind schedule and over budget.
A recent report, however, caught the attention of the White House with its especially grim picture of the program, officials said.
The Government Accountability Office discovered that the cost of the rocket had increased by 30 percent and that the first launch, initially scheduled for 2017, might not occur until mid-2021.
Despite those problems, NASA continued to pay tens of millions of dollars in "reward fees" to Boeing for rating high on performance evaluations, according to the report.
Another report highlighted the problems with the agency's plan to restore human space flight from US soil.
In his speech, Mr. Pence also put Boeing and the other companies he works with on notice, saying: "If our current contractors can not meet this goal, we will find some that will."
The space has been one of the top priorities for the White House, which considers exploration as a way to rejuvenate national pride, as it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
It has also cast space as a race between superpowers, especially with respect to China, which landed a spaceship on the other side of the Moon this year, a historic first.
Mr. Trump has lobbied for a Space Force, a new branch of the army that would reinforce the Pentagon's efforts to defend the critical orbiting national security satellites that provide missile alert, intelligence and communications for soldiers on the battlefield. .
The White House also reconstituted the National Space Council, and its first directive at the end of 2017 was the return to the moon.
A year and a half later, however, the White House is not impressed with the agency's progress in meeting that goal.
And Mr. Gerstenmaier's expulsion was seen as a way to shake the agency, according to industry officials.
Mr. Gerstenmaier first came to NASA in 1977, and his career spanned the space shuttle program and the International Space Station.
Most recently, he oversaw the commercial crew program of the agency, the development of a new generation of spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing that would take NASA's first astronauts into space from US soil since the space shuttle retreated in 2011. He also directed the Artemis. Program.
Along the way, "Gerst," as he is known, has earned the trust of many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, has been the enduring face of NASA for international partners and has developed a reputation as an unconditional agency worker.
His sudden elimination was "a shot that did not go through the bow because it hit the bow," said an industrial official. Like several other interviewees for this story, the official spoke about the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations within NASA and the White House.
"It's a signal for Mr. Bridenstine: meet or leave," the official said. "If Gerst is not sure, nobody is, or maybe just the astronauts who are currently on the space station."
The news of Mr. Gerstenmaier's removal was broken in an email that Mr. Bridenstine sent to NASA employees on Wednesday night, hours after Mr. Gerstenmaier had testified at the Capitol during a subcommittee of The House of Representatives.
"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 wrote.
"In an effort to face this challenge, I have decided to make leadership changes in the Office of Exploration and Human Operations (HEO) Missions."
He said that Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who had served as deputy administrator of the human exploration office, will assume the position as an actor.
Bill Hill, who had served with Mr. Gerstenmaier as assistant associate administrator in the human scouting office, was also reassigned. He will be a special adviser to Steve Jurczyk, an associate administrator of NASA.
Mr. Gerstenmaier was scheduled to appear on Thursday morning at a symposium in Ohio in honor of John Glenn. Mr. Bowersox appeared in his place.
He promised that NASA would reach the moon by 2024.