The real reason SpaceX hired former top NASA official
Last summer it looked as if the long, celebrated career of Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator in charge of human spaceflight, had reached a somewhat ignominious end. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had removed Gerstenmaier from his post because it was felt that the man who had guided the shuttle, the ISS, commercial crew, and both the previous and current attempts to send astronauts back to the moon was ill-suited for guiding NASA’s effort to send the first woman and next man to the lunar surface by 2024.
The news that SpaceX had hired Gerstenmaier as a consultant sent shockwaves of astonishment and no little joy across the aerospace community. The former NASA human spaceflight chief is well respected for the depth of his knowledge and beloved as a man who could work well with others and listen to the concerns of all. Gerstenmaier had lost his job at NASA because his slow and deliberate management style, something the space agency had valued since the end of Apollo, was not a good fit for an effort to achieve the next human moon landing by a date certain.
Gerstenmaier will experience a corporate culture at SpaceX with which he is unfamiliar. At NASA, major decisions, at least until recently, have not been arrived at without a flurry of memos and documentation and weeks of meetings. At SpaceX, Elon Musk often makes major decisions during just one meeting about a particular problem. Musk’s swashbuckling management style is one reason that SpaceX has achieved such progress in making Falcon 9 partly reusable, flying the Falcon Heavy and developing the Starship interplanetary spacecraft.
Gerstenmaier’s expertise will be invaluable in helping SpaceX develop products going forward, even though he will probably not be in the critical decision-making path. He will likely have some input for the SpaceX bid for the lunar lander proposed for the Artemis return to the moon program. He not only knows enough about engineering crewed space vehicles that he will be listened to, but he will also have insider knowledge about what his former colleagues at NASA are looking for in a crewed space vehicle.
But Gerstenmaier could shine in helping SpaceX commercialize the Starship. The Starship is a huge spacecraft that Musk is developing both in Florida and in Boca Chica, Texas, which he hopes will fulfill his dream of starting a million-person city on Mars. In the interim, Starship would be a great way to access the lunar surface, carrying a hundred tons of astronauts and cargo in a single voyage.
More than one outside observer has wondered why NASA doesn’t commit to using the SpaceX Starship in lieu of the far more expensive and behind-schedule Space Launch System. The problem is that the Space Launch System’s congressional backers would never allow a commercial upstart to supersede their favored launch vehicle. Also, NASA, particularly Bridenstine, doubts that Musk can have Starship ready in time for the 2024 deadline for returning to the moon.
But Bridenstine has expressed the desire to use Starship as a cargo carrier. One hundred tons would go a long way toward establishing a permanent lunar base.
Things might change if Gerstenmaier bestows his blessing on the SpaceX Starship. If the Space Launch System runs into some of the same problems that other Boeing vehicles, such as the Starliner and the 737-Max have, then with any luck, the SpaceX Starship will be available as a Plan B. Gerstenmaier could serve an invaluable role in selling the Starship, not only to NASA, but to other customers. The United States is not the only country with lunar aspirations. One can imagine the European Space Agency or perhaps the Gulf Arab States leasing a Starship to send an expedition to the lunar surface.
Gerstenmaier could serve as the ultimate rainmaker for SpaceX. A rainmaker is usually a senior partner at a law firm whose role is to drum up business by virtue of who he or she knows. Bill Gerstenmaier knows a lot of people, many of who may be willing to spend money to obtain the services that SpaceX has to offer.
Bill Gerstenmaier has made the leap from NASA and the old, traditional way of doing space to SpaceX and the new era of commercial space exploration, which is not a bad way to land on one’s feet.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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