Nearly two months have now passed since NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine essentially fired Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency’s chief of human spaceflight. Since then, Bridenstine has been winnowing a field of potential candidates for this critical position at NASA—a position which has oversight of all human spaceflight activities, including the space station, commercial crew, and Artemis lunar programs.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel on Friday urged Bridenstine to move quickly on finding a qualified replacement for the highly respected Gerstenmaier.
“It is important to recognize the sense of uncertainty that accompanies a vacuum in a key leadership position and address the need for stable and credible direction for the future,” said panel chair Patricia Sanders during a meeting at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “NASA personnel are continuing to move forward and progress on the programs of record. It’s in their DNA. But having positive confirmation of the specific direction from a permanent leader is imperative. And a sense of uncertainty should not be allowed to linger during this critical time.”
A source close to Bridenstine disputed the notion that there is a vacuum in leadership at the agency, citing the interim appointment of five-time astronaut and former aerospace industry official Ken Bowersox to fill Gerstenmaier’s job. However, this source said that Bridenstine is “close” to making a hire to permanently replace Gerstenmaier.
Not “business as usual”
During the advisory panel meeting, the members who spoke publicly about NASA’s Artemis program were generally supportive. Former Federal Aviation Administration official George Nield noted the progress NASA has made this year in rapidly soliciting ideas and bids from industry to finalize development of a Lunar Gateway near the Moon, along with a multi-stage lander to take humans from the that lunar space station down to the lunar surface.
“I was particularly impressed with the kinds of things that NASA is doing to position the Artemis program for success,” Nield said. “The number of synopses, requests for information, draft and final requests for proposals that NASA has put out in the last six months is really impressive. That is quite a procurement pace, and it is certainly not indicative of business as usual schedules.”
That NASA is not proceeding at a business-as-usual pace may in part explain why Gerstenmaier is gone. Although he was widely respected in the U.S. and international aerospace community, he took a careful and measured view of the work he oversaw. Neither Gerstenmaier nor his human spaceflight program moved particularly fast.
If NASA is to have any chance at making the goal of a 2024 human landing set by Vice President Mike Pence, it must move quickly. It seems that Bridenstine is taking the steps he can to make that happen—but there are definite limits to his power. Most significantly, Congress must agree to fund these efforts when it returns from a recess later this month.