Bridenstine: Concern about Cost & Schedule Realism Led to Gerstenmaier and Hill Reassignments

Bridenstine: Concern about Cost & Schedule Realism Led to Gerstenmaier and Hill Reassignments

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview today that his decision to reassign Bill Gerstenmaier and Bill Hill was not abrupt, but reflected a growing concern that cost and schedule estimates for the systems needed for the Artemis program are unrealistic. Repeatedly underscoring the need to meet the White House’s goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, what counts now is “realism” and he believes new leadership is required to reassess the programs and establish new baselines if necessary.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator  Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On Wednesday evening, Bridenstine announced that Gerstenmaier, the Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), and Hill, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, had been reassigned to senior advisor roles in the agency.

Hill had been in charge of the program to develop NASA’s new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Exploration Ground Systems to send astronauts to the Moon and beyond.  He reported to Gerstenmaier, who oversaw all of NASA’s human spaceflight activities including the International Space Station and commercial crew programs.

In an interview with this afternoon, Bridenstine praised Gerstenmaier’s 42 years of “amazing service” to NASA and credited him with developing the plan to achieve the Moon-by-2024 goal.  He also insisted that Gerstenmaier will continue to serve NASA and being assigned as a special advisor to Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard is just a “detail pending reassignment.”

Stressing this was his decision alone, not directed by the White House, he pointed to a series of reports over several years from the NASA Inspector General (IG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as eroding his confidence in Gerstenmaier’s ability to execute the plan.

Gerstenmaier had testified to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Wednesday morning and nothing seemed amiss, but just hours later, at about 8:30 pm ET, Bridenstine sent a memo to employees announcing the reassignments.  It caught the space community, including the committee’s leadership, by surprise.

Today Bridenstine insisted the decision was not abrupt and no single factor prompted Wednesday’s action.  Instead, it was the result of growing concerns and the desire to “not waste any time.”

The IG and GAO reports have criticized NASA’s schedule and cost estimates as being unrealistic.  With 2024 looming, what he needs now is “realism” and for him that must come from new leadership.

“We have to be absolutely committed to cost and schedule. … The longer we wait dealing with schedule and cost challenges, the more difficult it becomes.”

He plans to move quickly to find successors and announced a nationwide search yesterday.  Their first task will be to take a fresh look at the programs and “rebaseline as necessary to achieve the objectives.”

Asked what will happen if they say getting to the Moon by 2024 is not possible, he replied:

“We can do it in 2024.  I’m confident we can. The question is the commitment to being realistic. …  Milestones matter when you’re trying to put together a program to land on the Moon in 2024.  Milestones matter. If those milestones early in the process are not realistic, then milestones late in the process are not going to be realistic either. So we have to be sure we have realism built into the system so that we can plan accordingly through program management so that we can get the right things in place at the right time.” — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

A near-term issue is whether or not to conduct the “Green Run” test of the SLS core stage or skip it to save time.  A decision was expected in June, but Bridenstine said today he is going to wait until the new team has a chance to weigh in.  He thinks it is “very likely” a Green Run test will take place, but “how much of a Green Run” will be determined by the new HEOMD leadership.

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