William Gerstenmaier, head of the agency's human exploration office, was suddenly demoted on Wednesday. Replacing Gersteinmaier as acting associate administrator for human exploration is Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut and vice-president of Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance at SpaceX.
The American plan to return humans to the moon - including the first woman - is beset with delays and cost overruns, according to an official audit released last month. He was given a new position as special advisor to NASA's deputy administrator which for Gerstenmaier, and for all of the astute people, resembles more of a downgrade than anything else.
The widely-respected Gerstenmaier is a NASA veteran who joined the agency in 1977, rising to become one of its top managers, overseeing the space shuttle program and USA operations on the International Space Station before becoming head of HEO.
Gerstenmeir, or "Gerst" as he is called by peers, was known as a cautious and methodical leader who advocated for a full test of the Space Launch System, NASA's next moon rocket, when other leaders called for skipping the test to meet the deadline.
In a March speech, he took aim at NASA's bureaucracy, saying the agency "must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable and more agile organization. If NASA is not now capable of landing American astronauts on the Moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission".
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Gerstenmaier appeared to favor test firing the mammoth rocket's first stage, powered by four upgraded space shuttle main engines, at NASA's Stennis Space Center in MS next year to make sure the booster met its design specifications.
In another sign of internal shakeups in the space agency, Mark Sirangelo, a special assistant to Bridenstine, resigned in May, amid dwindling congressional support for the lunar initiative.
At the same time, NASA is now attempting to gain the confidence of the Congress regarding the Artemis program.
The agency's chief Jim Bridenstine announced the changes in an internal memo to employees, signaling the latest leadership changes. The move signifies something of a demotion for Gerstenmaier at the agency. During his 42 years at NASA, he served in many high-profile positions, including the Shuttle/Mir Program operations manager, the Space Shuttle Program Integration manager, the ISS Program manager, and the Space Operations Directorate associate administrator.
"We, as a nation, are thankful for his service in advancing America's priorities and expanding the limits of science, technology, and exploration", wrote Bridenstine in the memo.