NASA Leadership for Human Exploration Suddenly Changed

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The Trump Administration’s Moon Deadline Seems to be Why

I wrote a few weeks ago about Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement that he was cutting the timeline for NASA’s lunar outpost.  In response to the VP’s declaration NASA Leadership at the Human Exploration Program changed hands this week. 

In an e-mail on Wednesday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote:

“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. In an effort to meet this challenge, I have decided to make leadership changes to the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate.”

NASA photo of William Gerstenmaier

William Gerstenmaier

Those changes in NASA Leadership included moving William Gerstenmaier and Bill Hill into “special advisor” roles. Gerstenmaier, a longtime veteran of NASA, headed the human exploration program.  Hill was NASA’s assistant deputy associate administrator of human exploration. Both now “advise” other top NASA officials – a move which most view as a demotion.

Pence’s Announcement (or Threat)

In March Pence announced he was cutting four years off of the lunar outpost deadline. He said:

“[NASA] must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization. If NASA’s not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”

Essentially, Pence told NASA, in not-so-subtle terms, that their jobs were on the line. Tom McKay of Gizmodo points out that the timing of the new target is more than likely a political move. Pence shortened the original target date of 2028 to 2024.  The year that would just happen to be the end of a second Trump term. Obviously, we can’t say for certain what the motivations of President Beeblebrox are – hell, even he doesn’t know:

Let’s ignore the glaring inconsistency in the tweet itself. The Moon’s not important… we need the Moon to get to Mars. That was a month ago.  Just three months prior, Pence implied that if NASA couldn’t get us to the moon four years quicker then they’d all lose their jobs. Maybe then the Space Force could take over for NASA.

The Big Problem for the Program

Gerstenmaier was known for being “…a steady and methodical force at the agency’s headquarters,” according to The Washington Post. Ken Bowersox, former astronaut and current Deputy Associate Administrator, takes Gertenmaier’s position at the helm of human exploration. Bowersox certainly has the experience in space to do the job. However, one wonders if he wasn’t chosen because the administrator had more confidence in his ability to get the job done quickly than Gerstenmaier. That is, of course, speculation, but it does seem probable given the rest of the circumstantial evidence around the move. 

A big concern, moving forward, then, is whether or not the agency is now sacrificing safety and precision for speed and competition.  During the Space Race of the sixties, Kennedy set a bold challenge to land on the moon in less than ten years, and NASA scrambled to get it done. On the way, they lost lives, they lost equipment, and they suffered setbacks.  Many of those things could have been avoided had the time crunch not been there. In fact, Gerstenmaier helped ensure that a lot of those same types of failures didn’t happen again during his tenure. 

Of course, competition does help to spur innovation, so I’m not completely unsympathetic to the Vice President’s desire to see the timetable sped up, but I don’t want to waste human lives doing it. We must continue to proceed with caution, especially when dealing with private contractors such as SpaceX and Boeing, who may not be as constrained by safety concerns under the new leadership. 

 

 

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