Search continues for new NASA human spaceflight leader

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WASHINGTON — More than a month after he reassigned the longtime head of its human spaceflight division, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Aug. 21 it may be several weeks before he appoints a successor.

Speaking at a press conference at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Bridenstine said the agency was still carrying out a broad search for a new associate administrator for human exploration and operations to replace Bill Gerstenmaier, who was reassigned to a special advisor role on July 10.

“We are looking wide and far. We are doing a nationwide search,” Bridenstine said. “We are, at this point, wide open looking at all the possible alternatives.”

Bridenstine both described compiling a long list of potential candidates while also stating that only a limited number of people have the background needed for the job. “There’s very few people on the planet that have experience with human spaceflight missions, that have experience managing large programs,” he said.

“At this point we have not even begun to narrow the field,” he said. “We’re going to start narrowing it down in the coming weeks, and we’ll be ready to announce a name, I would imagine, in the not-too-distant future.”

Since Gerstenmaier’s reassignment last month, the human exploration and operations mission directorate has been led on an acting basis by Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who rejoined the agency early in the year as Gerstenmaier’s deputy. Bridenstine said that Bowersox was doing a “great job,” but didn’t say if he was being considered for the position on a permanent basis.

Bridenstine has stated in the past that he was holding off on some decisions related to exploration programs, like a revised launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System, until both a new associate administrator was in place as well as a deputy associate administrator for exploration systems. Bill Hill, who previously held that position, was reassigned at the same time as Gerstenmaier.

The livestreamed press conference also covered funding for the Artemis program. The White House submitted an amendment to its fiscal year 2020 budget request in May, seeking an additional $1.6 billion, of which $1 billion would be used to start work on lunar landers needed to achieve the goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2024.

“We’re working towards getting that funding,” Bridenstine said. “I have talked with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, I have traveled the country visiting people in their districts, and we have strong bipartisan support for that funding.”

However, the appropriations bill that the House passed in June did not include that additional $1.6 billion. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a member of the appropriations subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA, and whose district includes the Glenn Research Center, said at the press conference that the funding will depend on revised budget allocations after Congress approved a two-year budget deal last month with new overall spending caps, avoiding sequestration.

“Those who set the rules are trying to get a final bill completed before the end of September,” she said. “Now we’re waiting for final agreement with the senators.”

She said she expected Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, will play a key role in deciding if NASA gets that additional $1.6 billion because of both his chairmanship and his support of agency programs, particularly those at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

While Glenn will have only a supporting role on the lunar lander program, being led out of Marshall, Bridenstine said at least 40 civil servant positions at the center will be devoted to lander work.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who also attended the press conference, emphasized the importance of Glenn for NASA’s overall exploration efforts, as demonstrated by the center’s growing budget over the last few years. “There are very few federal facilities in the country that can claim this kind of increase, and it’s because they have confidence in us,” he said. “Our mission is tied to this broader mission, which is Artemis and eventually Mars.”