Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, testifying at a House hearing July 10. Hours later, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Gerstenmaier and another top exploration systems official were being reassigned. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

WASHINGTON — Bill Gerstenmaier, the longtime head of NASA’s human spaceflight program who was reassigned last year and later retired, is now working as a consultant for SpaceX as the company prepares to begin commercial crew flights.

A company source, speaking on background, said Feb. 11 that Gerstenmaier is working as a consultant to the “reliability team” at SpaceX. News of his hiring was first reported by CNBC.

Gerstenmaier joined NASA in 1977 and worked his way up through the agency, including management positions in the shuttle and ISS programs before becoming associate administrator for space operations in 2005. He became associate administrator for human exploration and operations in 2011 when NASA merged its exploration and space operations mission directorates.

Gerstenmaier held that position, which oversaw the International Space Station, commercial cargo and crew, and Space Launch System and Orion programs until July 10. NASA abruptly announced that day that Gerstenmaier would be reassigned to serve as a special advisor to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. Gerstenmaier’s deputy, Bill Hill, was reassigned to a similar position at the same time.

His reassignment took many both inside and outside the agency by surprise. “We’re moving to a new era in human spaceflight where the administration is interested in going fast, we’re interested in doing things in a different way, and I believed it was important to have new leadership at the top of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview two days later.

Bridenstine also praised Gerstenmaier. “He is a great American. He is a great patriot. He has served NASA for 42 years, and we love him,” he said in the interview. Gerstenmaier quietly retired from NASA in December, remaining out of public view during his final months at the agency.

Gerstenmaier was highly regarded at NASA, and in the broader space community, for his expertise and leadership during tumultuous times at the agency, including the retirement of the shuttle, cancellation of the Constellation program and the greater reliance on commercial providers to transport cargo and, soon, astronauts to and from the station. That included supporting the development of SpaceX’s Falcon and Dragon vehicles that are now routinely used for delivering cargo to the ISS and, as soon as this spring, transporting NASA astronauts.

In December, the National Space Club and Foundation announced they were awarding Gerstenmaier its highest honor, the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy. “His unique role and laser-like focus on space exploration gained the trust of several administrations, NASA administrators, and congresses,” the award citation stated. “His professionalism and technical capability earned the reputation of being arguably the most influential person in US human spaceflight.”

That reputation extends outside the United States as well. “Congrats to SpaceX with hiring an outstanding Aerospace Engineer, former NASA Head of Human Exploration Program William Gerstenmaier,” tweeted Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. “His role in the ISS project was tremendous. I wish my friend Bill every success in his new position!”

Also weighing in was one of Gerstenmaier’s former bosses. “A tremendous addition to the SpaceX team while keeping Bill in the greater Human Spaceflight Family. He will help make an already excellent team even better,” said former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...