Top House Committee Democrats Seek Details of Sudden Dismissal of Gerstenmaier and Hill

Top House Committee Democrats Seek Details of Sudden Dismissal of Gerstenmaier and Hill

The two top Democrats on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee that oversee NASA expressed surprise at yesterday’s sudden dismissal of two NASA officials leading the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, Bill Gerstenmaier and Bill Hill.  Expressing concern about the impact on the human spaceflight program of losing its engineering leadership at a critical time, they called on NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to further explain his decision. Meanwhile, Bridenstine announced a nationwide search today to find their permanent replacements.

Committee chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said she is “baffled” why Bill Gerstenmaier and Bill Hill would be removed from their positions with no permanent successors identified.

Gerstenmaier was Associate Administrator (AA) for Human Exploration and Operations from 2011 until yesterday, and of the Space Operations Mission Directorate for 6 years prior to that.  Hill was the Deputy AA for Exploration Systems Development, in charge of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew capsule, and associated Exploration Ground Systems.

Bridenstine announced their reassignment to “special advisor” roles in the agency at about 8:30 pm ET last night.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK) chairing July 10, 2019 hearing on ISS and Future of LEO Activities. Screengrab.

In a joint statement with Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK) today, Johnson characterized Artemis as an “ill-defined crash program” that “was going to be challenging enough to achieve under the best of circumstances.”  She asked Bridenstine to explain his decision to remove “experienced engineering leadership” and provide an “executable program plan accompanied by a credible budget,” both of which are critical to convincing Congress to support the program.

Horn chairs the House SS&T Space and Aeronautics subcommittee.  She also asked for further explanation, noting that Gerstenmaier had just testified before her subcommittee yesterday morning.  “The Subcommittee found his testimony very important given his technical insight and his depth of NASA experience.”

“I am concerned about the impacts that such abrupt leadership changes in our nation’s human space flight programs could have at a time when we are at the threshold of testing the integrated Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle that will take humans into deep space and the commercial space flight systems that will take our astronauts to the International Space Station.” — Rep. Kendra Horn

Ken Bowersox, NASA Acting Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations speaking at the AAS Glenn Symposium, July 11, 2019. Screengrab.

Gerstenmaier has been reassigned as a special advisor to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard.  Morhard gave the opening keynote address at the American Astronautical Society’s (AAS’s) John Glenn Memorial Symposium in Cleveland, OH this morning, but said nothing about it.

Gerstenmaier was scheduled to speak at the symposium, too, to discuss the Gateway.  Instead, Ken Bowersox filled that slot having been named Acting AA for Human Exploration and Operations last night.  A former astronaut, he recently returned to NASA to serve as Gerstenmaier’s deputy.  This morning was his first public appearance in his new role. He did not speak to the events that put him in his new job.

One of the concerns is that yesterday’s dismissals presage major changes to the Artemis program, but that was not apparent today.

Morhard gave a pretty standard speech about the Artemis program and expressed confidence that Congress will provide the $1.6 billion requested as a supplement to NASA’s FY2020 budget even if the government is funded through a Continuing Resolution (CR), as seems increasingly likely.

A former Senate Appropriations Committee staffer, Morhard expounded on the complex appropriations process. Under a CR, agencies ordinarily are held to their current funding levels (FY2019 in this case), but in rare circumstances it is possible to get an “anomaly,” or waiver, to spend more. “I can’t predict, but I would hazard a guess it will probably be what we call an anomaly, there will be a separate provision that we have to discuss this and give direction to NASA to do this.  I’m still hopeful, I’m not even hopeful, I’m confident this will happen.”  Without it, “we can’t get there [to the Moon] in 2024….”

Similarly, Bowersox used a set of slides that he acknowledged has been used to brief a number of groups already. He added, however, that there have changes in the past and there probably will be changes in the future as NASA iterates the plan internally and with stakeholders in the government and commercial and international partners.

There was little new in his talk, although he did emphasize that while the target date for the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) is the end of 2020, it will launch “when it’s ready and everybody’s going to talk about it a lot to make sure that we’re ready.” Repeated delays in the SLS schedule are thought to be one of the reasons Hill was replaced. NASA and SLS prime contractor Boeing are trying to find ways to speed it up.  One debate is over whether to proceed with a “Green Run” test or accept the additional risk of skipping it.  A decision was expected last month, but no announcement has been made and Bowersox provided no clues.

Bowersox is serving in an acting capacity as is Hill’s successor, Tom Whitmeyer.   Bridenstine opened a nationwide search today to find permanent replacements. One of the first tasks for the new AA will be “to assess the costs and schedules for SLS, Orion, Commercial Crew, and other key programs.”

At NASA, safety is our highest priority. Cost and schedule also matter. It is important that we all stay focused on the work ahead to successfully land on the Moon in 2024.  — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine


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