William Gerstenmaier, a NASA veteran, was sacked Wednesday at the head of the agency's human exploration bureau, a sudden move that comes as the agency seeks to reinstate a program of manned space flights and send astronauts back to the moon.
Gerstenmaier, who had been with the agency since 1977, was responsible for some of NASA's most prominent programs and is known to be a consistent and methodical force at the agency's headquarters. Known as "Gerst", he worked alongside Boeing and SpaceX to develop a spacecraft capable of transporting NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
He was also leading efforts to send astronauts back to the moon, which had become a priority for the Trump administration.
In an email sent to employees by the Washington Post, NASA director Jim Bridenstine announced that Mr. Gerstenmaier would become the special assistant to Jim Morhard, the assistant administrator.
The White House has been frustrated by the rapid pace at which US astronauts travel to the moon and by some of the problems that have hindered NASA's efforts, including the massive rocket it is building, known as the Space Launch System, which is several years behind schedule. and well above the budget.
This year, Vice President Pence asked NASA to significantly accelerate its return to the moon – by four years, in 2024 – which surprised many people at the agency.
In a speech in March, he spoke to NASA's bureaucracy, saying the agency "should turn into a leaner, more accountable and agile organization. If NASA is not currently able to reach US astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission. "
He added that the United States needed a renewed sense of urgency to compete with powers such as China. "It's not just the competition against our opponents," he said. "We are also running against our worst enemy: complacency."
In the mail sent to NASA employees on Wednesday night, Bridenstine wrote, "As you know, NASA has been challenged to place the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, putting focus on the ultimate goal of sending to Mars. 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.