WHITTINGTON: NASA Exploration Chief’s Ouster Is Great News For Trump’s Moon Mission


Mark Whittington Contributor
Font Size:

Bill Gerstenmaier has been running NASA’s human space flight directorate since 2005. His tenure lasted through three administrations. He is a popular and well-respected NASA manager.

Yet, the fact that President Bush’s Project Constellation and President Obama’s Road to Mars never made it to the launchpad suggested that he was not the man to run President Trump’s Artemis “return to the moon” program. In the interest of getting Americans back to the moon by 2024, Gerstenmaier had to go.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine praised Gerstenmaier after he removed him from his post. “Bill Gerstenmaier has been an amazing leader of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate for a long time, and we love him. We love the work he’s done, and we’re grateful for his service to NASA and to the country.”

The problem with Gerstenmaier was that he was part of the post-Apollo NASA corporate culture that valued caution and bureaucracy over cost and schedule. The approach stemmed from a regard for astronaut safety. NASA, at all costs, wanted to avoid a repeat of the Apollo fire and the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

As well-meaning as the NASA safety culture was, it occurred at the expense of schedule and costs. The space station, initially meant to reach completion in time for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in 1992, was not completed until 2011. The orbiting lab was almost cancelled by Congress twice. The previous two attempts to send astronauts to the moon, initiated by both Presidents Bush, plodded along so long that it was easy for their successors to cancel them. Obama’s journey to Mars never got off the ground.

Trump, a former builder with some experience in meeting cost and schedule projections, sensed that the program to return to the moon was falling into the same pattern.

When Vice President Mike Pence announced that the “first woman and next man” would walk on the moon by 2024, he indicated that a change in NASA’s corporate culture will have to take place. NASA will have to remake itself into something resembling the space agency of the Apollo era. The people running Artemis will have to learn to make decisions without endless meetings and memos. For the return to the moon to succeed, NASA will have to make some calculated risks. It will have to streamline the decision-making process.

Bridenstine has started a nationwide search for a new management team to run Artemis. Its first task will be to conduct a realistic evaluation of the current cost and schedule for Artemis. The new team will determine how to ensure that the next moon landing happens in 2024. NASA means to avoid the schedule slippages and cost overruns that have plagued previous high-profile space projects.

Currently, NASA intends to keep to the current approach to returning to the moon. A crew of astronauts will take off from the Kennedy Space Center on board an Orion spacecraft on top of a Space Launch System rocket. The Orion will dock at the Lunar Gateway, previously deployed in lunar orbit. The crew will transfer to a commercially-built lunar lander. The lander will take the American astronauts to land at the lunar south pole. For the first time in over 50 years, Americans will walk on the moon.

But, the new chief of human spaceflight may recommend outside-the-box approaches to lunar exploration. Some analysts believe that the Lunar Gateway is not needed, at least at first. The first astronauts back to the moon could fly on a commercial vehicle such as SpaceX’s “Starship” or Blue Origin’s “New Glenn.”

The leadership shakeup proves that NASA and the Trump administration are serious about returning to the moon and going to Mars. The technical challenges are daunting. The political difficulties are even more so. House Democrats are skeptical about the 2024 deadline. They have expressed disquiet over Gerstenmaier’s ouster.

Still, the leadership shakeup and the institution of a new, risk-taking culture at NASA suggests that greatness awaits America’s effort to return to the moon.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.