Major management shake-up at NASA’s manned program


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NASA today did a major shake-up in its manned program, most specifically relating to the management of its SLS/Orion program.

In a major shakeup at NASA Headquarters, agency Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday that Bill Gerstenmaier, the widely respected director of human spaceflight, has been replaced in the midst of an ambitious push to meet the Trump administration’s directive to send astronauts back to the moon within five years.

Effective immediately, Bridenstine wrote in a letter to agency employees, Ken Bowersox, a five-flight shuttle veteran, space station astronaut and Gerstenmaier’s deputy, will take over on an acting basis while Gerstenmaier serves as “special advisor” to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard.

…Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development within HEO also has been replaced. A long-time NASA veteran, Hill helped manage development of the agency’s new heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, needed to carry astronauts back to the moon.

While the long delays and cost overruns at both SLS and Orion can partly be blamed on micromanagement by Congress and a lack of interest by the previous Obama administration, the internal management by Gersternmaier and Hill during this time is also at fault. They have allowed these programs to drag on, and were in charge when numerous major screw ups occurred, from badly built test stands that went overbudget to dishonest budget manipulations to cracks in the first Orion capsule to contamination in SLS’s rocket engines to the dropping of an SLS oxygen tank to brittle and weak welds in those tanks to establishing an overall slow motion pace for construction of the entire project.

I suspect that this shake-up is linked to the story earlier this week where NASA hinted it was going to have to delay the first SLS launch for another year.

I wrote then that the Trump administration would not take kindly to such a new delay, even if it was justified so the agency could do a required full stack static fire test of SLS’s core stage. I am willing to bet that this shake-up occurred because Gertenmaier and Hill had finally revealed the need for this delay, and the shake-up was the Trump administration’s response.

This doesn’t mean that SLS won’t be delayed. It just means the Trump administration has decided it was time to put new people in charge.

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12 comments

  • Fun fact: Ken Bowersox and crew appeared on ‘Home Improvement’.

    “Do you all make fun of his name?”

    “No, Tim.”

    “Why not?”

    “He’s the commander.”

  • Art

    Good. When Gerstenmaier started at NASA in 1977, some equipment and people from the moon missions were still employed. Since then, our space accomplishments have been in steady decline. Two-woman space walk anyone? How do you spell incompetent? One of his excuses is micro-managent from congress. Fine. Tell the truth and quit, or make them fire you for cause. An honorable man would have left a long time ago. Now they will give him a lesser title so his pension is safe. I see this as a small step in the right direction.

  • David M. Cook

    Will anything change at NASA? Can Ken Bowersox & the others make the SLS show up on time, or will they be the ones to pull the plug?

  • Foxbat

    Art, I totally agree that the manned portion of NASA has declined to nothing. The robot planetary history has been great. Think of what discoveries we could have if the billions wasted on SLS were used in that area.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Much needed. Long overdue. Unlikely, at this point, to have much practical effect on SLS-Orion schedules. Bottom line? It’s good he’s gone, but Artemis-1, 2 and 3 will not fly in 2020, 2022 and 2024 as the current fictional schedule requires so long as SLS and Orion are on the critical path.

  • I have long believed that Gerst wasn’t sufficiently innovative & visionary. He always spoke favorably about the Default, status quo Plan whatever that was at the time. e.g. the ARM:

    https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/756161main_Gerstenmaier_Presentation.pdf

    What we need is for an HEOMD director who will actually put all options on the table for consideration by the top NASA leadership — and that includes things like a FH-based lunar architecture, XEUS, & Starship.

    So setting aside Gerst is a necessary step in the right direction but not sufficient to get us where we need to go. The sufficient step would be to completely rethink architectures without presuming that the Default Plan (i.e. SLS, Orion, Gateway) is the only way to get to the lunar surface in a sustainable manner. For Pete’s sake, even OMB recognizes that missikns to the lunar surface are possible using rendezvous without needing a Gateway.

  • Richard M

    Eric Berger has tweeted out that his sources suggest that this was driven by the White House.

    I guess we will find out in due course.

    At least two House Democratic leaders have already voiced displeasure with the removals – so expect this to at least complicate the effort to get House approval for supplementary Artemis funding.

    I don’t think Gerst is a bad guy per se – he knows his stuff, is respected in the industry and NASA centers, and is clearly dedicated to NASA, and perhaps in more than just a Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy kind of way. It is clear that he made up his mind long ago that *nothing* was going to change Congress’s parochial management of NASA HSF programs, and the best thing he could do was try to make some lemonade out of the lemons congressional funding directives gave him. That a minimally useful and super expensive Gateway and super heavy launcher were better than the nothing NASA might get if NASA decided to Fight The Man.

    There’s an argument for that, though I don’t think it’s a terrible convincing or edifying one. But even setting that aside, it’s also become clear – as Lori Garver confirmed yesterday – that too often he was a skeptic and opponent of trying new and more innovative forms of procurement over the old fixed cost NASA model, especially Commercial Crew. That alone really required moving him out of his senior role at NASA.

  • Richard M

    P.S. Here’s that tweet from Lori Garver yesterday, for those curious:

    “End of an era & big shoes to fill. Whatever your view about @NASA human SpaceFlight over the last 15 years – Gerst held the reigns. He was reluctant to embrace commercial crew, but we knew it would be successful when he finally did. Guess Artemis/2024 was a bridge too far.”

    https://twitter.com/Lori_Garver/status/1149157308938764288

    You know, there was little for me to like about the Obama Administration. But Lori Garver really was one of those few exceptions. The success of COTS and Commercial Crew to date owe her no small debt.

  • Richard M: Of course this change was driven by the White House. I think they suddenly realized, after seeing the nasaspaceflightnow story I highlighted on July 9 that the promises they had been getting about launching SLS in 2020 were simply not true. It is likely they confronted Gerstenmaier or Bridenstine, found out the truth, and demanded change.

  • Edward

    DougSpace,
    I agree with you that there are better options, but my understanding is that ULA has put XEUS on the shelf, at least for now. This disappoints me, because it looks like XEUS would be an excellent machine for use in getting to, from, and around the Moon.

    Richard M wrote: “It is clear that he made up his mind long ago that *nothing* was going to change Congress’s parochial management of NASA HSF programs, and the best thing he could do was try to make some lemonade out of the lemons congressional funding directives gave him. That a minimally useful and super expensive Gateway and super heavy launcher were better than the nothing NASA might get if NASA decided to Fight The Man.

    This is one of the things that I mean when I say (perhaps too often) that Congress has squandered the skills, talent, and knowledge at NASA. Somehow Congress managed to turn an innovative can-do organization into a no-can-do organization. Manned space gets most of the attention, unmanned exploration occasionally gets some attention, and aeronautics (said to be the little “a” in NaSA) gets virtually no attention at all. (Does anyone know whether there is any aeronautics going on there anymore?)

    Thanks to the skills, talent, and knowledge at NASA, several commercial companies are beginning to do what we expected of NASA four or five decades ago. Launch costs are falling, satellite costs are falling, and private exploration is beginning. Dr. Alan Binder tried to do private lunar exploration with a lunar orbiter, but when he ran out of funding he had to turn to NASA to complete the mission. What a disappointment. Fortunately, modern attempts are beginning to pay off.

    Thank goodness that NASA is losing its monopoly on American space access, exploration, innovation, and usage. Comsats were about the only commercial satellites, but Ikonos changed that, two decades ago, with commercial Earth observation. Several people got weary of waiting for Congress and NASA to do something worthwhile in space, and now some of those people are finally succeeding at doing their own worthwhile things.

    At last, we have innovative entrepreneurs making more than just lemonade, they are making lemon meringue pie. Others are finding cherries over at NASA and are making cherry pie. Soon we may even have Moon pie and Mars pie, too. It isn’t just that we finally have an expanding pie, we now have a choice of pies.

    Unfortunately, for the next decade or two we still need NASA to help with the expansion and the additional choices. Fortunately, we may get a new NASA management that is eager to help with and to sample these new and larger commercially-made pies.

  • Art

    After the administration told NASA to go to the moon by 2024, Gerstenmaier suggested that perhaps they would just wait for the next administration. I am surprised it took this long. Too bad it takes so much to fire a gold brick like him.

  • wodun

    TBH, a lot of NASA management should have been fired over the last fifteen years and ones who have seen the problems but were not responsible due to interference from congress should have resigned in protest.

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