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The head of the human exploration program of NASA demoted while the agency advocates the return of Moon

The head of NASA's human exploration program was replaced within the agency just months after Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to send human beings to the moon. the next five years. This is the latest in a series of significant changes among NASA leaders in recent months as the agency strives to send humans back to the lunar surface.

"As you know, NASA has launched a bold challenge: to place the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, focusing on the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars", wrote to NASA administrators Jim Bridenstine to employees. memo obtained by The edge. "In order to meet this challenge, I decided to change the direction of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) mission direction."

William Gerstenmaier, a long-time Associate Administrator in charge of human exploration at NASA, has been reassigned to a new role as Special Advisor to NASA's Deputy Administrator. The move means something of a demotion for Gerstenmaier to the agency. As head of the human exploration division, Gerstenmaier has overseen many of NASA's largest manned space flight projects, such as operations on the International Space Station; the development of NASA's next major rocket, the Space Launch System; and the Commercial Crew program, an initiative to launch astronauts to the ISS using a commercial spaceship.

"As a country, we are grateful for its services that have helped advance America's priorities and push the boundaries of science, technology and exploration," wrote Bridenstine in his memo. Ken Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut and head of the agency, will take over from Gerstenmaier as interim head of human exploration. Another prominent NASA employee, Bill Hill, has also been reassigned from an Associate Assistant Administrator of Human Exploration to another Special Advisor position. Indeed, the first and second NASA commanders on space humans were replaced at the same time.

NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This news comes just hours after Gerstenmaier testified at a House subcommittee meeting, which focused on the future of the International Space Station and NASA's plans for the exploration of the International Space Station. low Earth orbit. "NASA's Artemis program will build an open and sustainable architecture that will bring humanity to our nearest neighbor," wrote Gerstenmaier in his testimony at the hearing. "We are building for the long term, and this time we are going to the moon to stay. We design an open, sustainable and reusable architecture that will support deep space exploration for decades. "

Both movements represent huge personnel changes within NASA's human exploration division, and at a critical juncture when the agency attempts to sell its ambitious lunar program, called Artemis, to Congress. The White House recently asked an additional $ 1.6 billion to NASA to help revive the Artemis program next year, in addition to the $ 21 billion that the administration had already requested for the next year. ;agency. Until now, it is unclear whether Congress will appropriate the necessary funds for the program and some legislators are worried about the source of funds requested. The White House has requested that the money be withdrawn from a Pell Grant Program surplus, which provides financial assistance to college students.

The decision to reassign Gerstenmaier and Hill is already being criticized by lawmakers who help define NASA's program. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who chairs the House of Science, Space and Technology Committee, provided this statement to The edge:

I am puzzled by the decision of the NASA Administrator to abruptly resign highly respected NASA Manned Space Flight Authority and Exploration Systems Exploration Officers without permanent successors. The Trump administration's ill-defined accident program to land astronauts on the Moon in 2024 was going to be difficult enough to carry out under the best conditions. Removing experienced engineering industry leaders from this effort and the other manned space flight programs of the nation at such a crucial time seems at best wrong. The Administrator must explain this staff action and provide an executable program plan with a credible budget so that the Congress has the necessary foundation to support the initiative of the President of the Moon.

Representative Kendra Horn (D-OK), Chair of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, voiced similar criticisms:

"I am concerned about the impacts that such abrupt leadership changes on our country's manned space flight programs could have at a time when we are about to test the integrated space launch system and the vehicle of the aircraft. Orion crew that will train humans in the space l commercial flight systems that will lead our astronauts to the International Space Station. "

These are not the only major personnel changes that NASA has made recently. Mark Sirangelo, who was recently hired to lead a new direction "Moon to Mars" at NASA, resigned after only a month of work at the agency, and NASA decided to completely abandon the plans of the new division. "As NASA no longer pursues the new direction of the mission, Mark has chosen to pursue other opportunities," said Bridenstine in a note addressed to employees at the time.

"NASA has always been fortunate to have a great talent that has served our country well," wrote Bridenstine in his memo today. "As we work to fill these key positions within HEO, we will remain focused on our mission, knowing that exploration will continue.

Update of July 11 at 3:50 pm ET: This article has been updated to include a new statement by Johnson and Rep. Horn.

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