David Chenette
David Chenette. Credit: NASA

UPDATED June 16 at 11:25 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division has been fired after just nine months on the job for what his supervisor characterized as leadership and management failures, according to internal agency memos obtained by SpaceNews.

David Chenette, a veteran solar scientist who came to NASA from industry Sept. 30, will leave his position June 20, according to an official termination notice dated June 6 and signed by NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld, Chenette’s supervisor.

“You have demonstrated little effort to engage your personnel and provide an inclusive workplace that fosters development to their full potential, despite being instructed that this was your primary objective when you were selected for this position,” Grunsfeld said in the notice, adding that the former Lockheed Martin executive had sown “confusion and apprehension in the scientific community.”

Chenette was placed on paid leave June 6, at which time Jeffrey Newmark, a space scientist at NASA headquarters since 2009, took over as interim heliophysics director, according to another memo.

In the termination notice, Grunsfeld charged that Chenette bungled planning for the $800 million Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, impeded the progress of a NASA space weather program, and took a lackadaisical approach to a volunteer-led effort to restart an old NASA heliophysics mission, the International Sun/Earth Explorer-3.

Chenette fiercely denied these charges in a June 9 letter to Grunsfeld, to which he appended a six-page memo that sought to refute, in detail, Grunsfeld’s reasons for firing him.

“I believe that my termination was based on false and misleading information,” Chenette wrote. “I believe that the considerations that led to my termination were dominated by a need to eliminate conflict rather than a desire to address the problems that confronted the division when I arrived and continue today.”

Chenette singled out Madhulika Guhathakurta, lead program scientist for NASA’s Living With a Star program and program scientist for the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, as a big part of the division’s problems.

“I believe that the problems in the Heliophysics Division are dominated by the continuing actions of Dr. Madhulika Guhathakurta,” Chenette wrote. “By her actions she chooses not to work as a member of the Heliophysics Division team. More than any other person she has been an unusually divisive and polarizing presence in the heliophysics community.”

Guhathakurta, in a June 11 email, wrote that “Dr. Chenette’s allegations are without evidence and simply false.” She emphasized that she was speaking for herself, and not her employer, NASA.

Chenette wants his firing, and the circumstances that led to it, probed by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.

“[I]f my departure triggers a detailed examination of this issue and correction of the problems that triggered it, then perhaps some good will have come out of this appalling situation,” Chenette wrote.

NASA’s public affairs office declined to discuss the incident, or the possibility of an investigation.

“The agency does not publicly discuss personnel matters,” NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown wrote in a June 13 email.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...