The sudden expulsion of William Gerstenmaier, head of human exploration activities at NASA, is a clear sign that the White House is increasingly frustrated with the agency's efforts to send humans back to the surface. the moon by 2024.
The Trump administration is focused on this date, which will come up during the second term of the Trump presidency, should he be reelected. Despite its mandate, NASA continued to fight the delays and cost overruns that threatened the program. And the ouster of one of the The oldest pillars of the agency show just how much the White House is willing to disrupt NASA and try to break the bureaucracy that, in the opinion of many, weighs in on its efforts. exploration for years.
In March, Vice President Pence fired the first warning shot, announcing a new fast track schedule for NASA's lunar landing plans. Instead of sending humans there by 2028, he said, his new charge would be within five years. He warned NASA leaders that if they could not carry out their mission, they would be held responsible.
"To achieve this, NASA must evolve into a leaner, more accountable and agile organization," he said. "If NASA is not currently able to land American astronauts on the moon in five years, we must change the organization, not the mission."
Industry representatives said that Pence and others in the White House have become crazy about the agency's lack of progress, especially the huge rocket known as the Space Launch System or SLS, which NASA has been developing for over 10 years but has yet to fly. White House officials have expressed dismay at NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at a meeting in recent weeks, according to a space industry official who is not allowed to speak. in public about internal deliberations.
There were also tensions between Bridenstine and Gerstenmaier, officials said. Bridenstine had repeatedly said, for example, that he would not remove other programs within the agency to fund the Moon program, known as Artemis. But Gerstenmaier denied this at an advisory council meeting: "We will have to look for efficiencies and internal cuts in the agency, and that's where it will be difficult," he said. he said, according to SpaceNews.
A spokesman for NASA did not respond to a request for comment. The National Council of Space declined to comment, but an administration official said: "It was an internal decision of NASA, and the statement of the Administrator Bridenstine speaks for itself."
US Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, criticized the decision to brutally remove someone with Gerstenmaier's broad institutional knowledge.
"The Trump administration's ill-defined accident program to land astronauts on the Moon in 2024 was going to be hard enough to achieve under the best circumstances," she said in a statement. "Abolition of the experienced technical leadership of this effort and the rest The nation's manned space flight programs at such a crucial time seem at best misguided.
The White House, however, is keen to show real progress and is tired of reports of delays in some of NASA's most critical programs.
For years, the SLS has been criticized for its perpetual delay and budget overruns. A recent report, however, has drawn the attention of the White House with its particularly grim picture of the program, officials said. The Government Accountability Office found that the cost of the rocket had increased by 30% and that the first launch, originally scheduled for 2017, might not take place until mid-2021.
Despite these problems, NASA has continued to pay Boeing "allocation fees" of tens of millions of dollars for its high performance ratings, the report says. Another report highlighted problems with the agency's plan to restore human spaceflight from US soil.
In his speech, Pence also warned Boeing and other companies he works with that: "If our current contractors can not achieve this goal, we will find one who will."
Space has been a top priority for the White House, which sees exploration as a way to rekindle national pride as it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Space a race between the superpowers, especially China, which landed a spacecraft off the moon earlier this year, a historic first.
Trump lobbied for the creation of a space force, a new branch of the military, that would strengthen the Pentagon's efforts to defend national orbiting satellites, which provide warnings, intelligence and communications about missiles to the soldiers on the battlefield.
The White House also reconstituted the National Council of Space and its first directive, late 2017, was a return to the moon.
A year and a half later, however, the White House is not impressed by the progress the agency has made towards this goal. And the ousting of Gerstenmaier has been seen as a way to upset the agency, according to industry officials.
Gerstenmaier first arrived at NASA in 1977, and his career has been in the Space Shuttle Program and the International Space Station. Most recently, he oversaw the agency's Commercial Crew program, developing a new generation of spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing, which would carry the first NASA astronauts into space since American soil since the withdrawal of the space shuttle in 2011. He also directed program to bring humans back to the moon.
Throughout its journey, "Gerst," as it's called, has earned the trust of many Capitol Hill lawmakers, has been NASA's enduring face for international partners and has earned the reputation of being one of the world's leading companies. be a discreet and hardworking pillar of the agency.
His sudden withdrawal was "a shot that did not touch the bow because it touched the bow," said an industrial manager. Like many other interviewees for this story, the manager spoke under cover of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations at NASA and the White House.
"It's a sign for Bridenstine: arrange yourself or you're released," said the official. "If Gerst is not safe, no one is – or maybe just the astronauts currently on the space station."
The news of Gerstenmaier's dismissal broke out in an email that Bridenstine sent to NASA staff on Wednesday night, a few hours after Gerstenmaier testified at Capitol Hill at a local subcommittee.
"As you know, NASA has launched a bold challenge: to place the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, with the focus on the ultimate goal of the game. send human beings to Mars, "Bridenstine wrote. "In order to meet this challenge, I decided to change the direction of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) mission direction."
He added that Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut, who had held the position of Associate Deputy Administrator of the Human Exploration Bureau, would take over as acting.
Bill Hill, who had served with Gerstenmaier as an associate associate administrator at the Human Exploration Bureau, was also reassigned. He will be special advisor to Steve Jurczyk, associate director of NASA.
Gerstenmaier was scheduled to appear Thursday morning at a symposium in Ohio in honor of John Glenn. Bowersox appeared in his place.
He promised that NASA would reach the Moon by 2024.
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