The sudden removal of William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s head of human exploration, late Wednesday is a clear sign that the White House is increasingly frustrated with the agency’s efforts to return humans to the surface of the moon by 2024.
The Trump administration is laser focused on that date, which would come during a second term of the Trump presidency, should he be re-elected. But despite the mandate, NASA has continued to struggle with delays and cost overruns that have threatened the program. And the ouster of one of the longest-serving stalwarts in the agency shows how far the White House is willing to go toward disrupting NASA and attempting to break through the bureaucracy that many think has stilted its exploration efforts for years.
In March, Vice President Mike Pence fired the first warning shot, announcing a new, expedited timeline for NASA’s moon landing plans. Instead of getting humans there by 2028, he said, its new charge would be within five years. He put NASA leaders on notice, saying that if they couldn’t complete the mission, they would be held accountable.
“In order to accomplish this, NASA must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization,” he said. “If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”
Industry officials said Pence and others in the White House have become livid about the agency’s lack of progress, particularly of the massive rocket known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, that NASA has been developing for more than a decade but has yet to fly. White House officials expressed their dismay to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a meeting within the last few weeks, according to a space industry official not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations.
There had also been tension between Bridenstine and Gerstenmaier, officials said. Bridenstine repeatedly had said, for example, that he would not cut other programs within the agency to fund the moon program, known as Artmeis. But Gerstenmaier contradicted him during an advisory council meeting, saying recently, “We’re going to have to look for some efficiencies and make some internal cuts to the agency, and that’s where it’s going to be hard,” he said according to SpaceNews.
A NASA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The National Space Council declined to comment but an administration official said, “This was an internal NASA decision, and Administrator Bridenstine’s statement speaks for itself.”