A top official of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was fired from his post last week to make way for new leadership in the agency. NASA Associate Administrator for Human Operations William Gerstenmaier was demoted to the position of a special advisor by NASA chief Jim Bridenstine.
Grestenmaier had been in charge of the human exploration projects of NASA since 2005. According to a report on Quartz, he oversaw the operations of the International Space Station, the development of new space exploration vehicles, and the purchase of space hardware for NASA missions from commercial space firms.
Amid speculation that the top official was removed from his post at the behest of the Trump administration, Bridenstine said last week that the decision to reassign Grestenmaier was based on the NASA plan to hire new leadership. The former associate administrator was 65 years old and nearing retirement age, reports Quartz.
The firing of a senior officer from NASA also points to increasing discomfort between the Trump administration and NASA officials in charge of putting humans back on the moon by 2024. The program has fallen prey to numerous delays and disagreements since U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced to bring it forward from an initial launch date in 2028.
In May, NASA asked Congress for a “down payment” to boost the troubled lunar mission. The space agency asked for $1.6 billion in emergency funding as part of the original $19.5 billion pledged for the mission by U.S. President Donald Trump. A lander and another module for the lunar mission are still in the development phase, irking U.S. officials who want a 2024 launch.
A launch vehicle specifically designed for carrying the lunar mission to space, named the Space Launch System, has also faced numerous delays and cost overruns. The SLS is not expected to be operational before 2021 and could cause a delay in the 2024 deadline for the NASA mission to the moon.
The ousting of Grestenmaier comes at a time of renewed interest in space from the likes of rising space powers China and India. Beijing landed an unmanned probe on the moon in early 2019, and India is expected to attempt a landing in September this year. The U.S. is now lagging behind these countries in showcasing its space prowess.