Former NASA spaceflight chief now consulting with SpaceX


Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate, speaks with reporters last year at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Chris Swanson

Bill Gerstenmaier, former director of spaceflight at NASA Headquarters and a widely respected aerospace engineer and manager, has taken a consulting position at SpaceX, the California rocket company NASA helped save in 2008 with the award of a $1.6 billion contract to build and launch space station cargo ships.

Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a veteran shuttle commander, tweeted congratulations, calling it “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. Congrats to you Bill and to SpaceX!!!”

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said in another tweet: “Congratulations to @SpaceX on inviting an outstanding engineer, former manager of the @NASA manned program, William Gerstenmaier. Bill made a huge contribution to the success of the project #ISS. I wish my friend success in a new job!”

Gerstenmaier, known throughout the aerospace community simply as “Gerst,” joined the agency in 1977 and rose through the ranks to play key roles in the development of what became the International Space Station. He also managed NASA participation with Roscosmos in the shuttle-Mir program and served as the overall space station program manager before becoming associate administrator for spaceflight at NASA Headquarters in 2005.

He was demoted by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in July 2019, in large part to clear the way for a new management team to oversee final development of the rockets, spacecraft and infrastructure needed to send astronauts back to the moon under the Artemis program.

The decision to remove Gerstenmaier shocked many agency insiders who decried the loss of his engineering expertise and management skills. But others viewed him as a more traditional aerospace manager and possibly out of step with the Trump administration’s fast-track push to put boots on the moon by the end of 2024, four years earlier than NASA had been planning.

It was not immediately clear what role Gerstenmaier might play at SpaceX. The company confirmed he was serving as a consultant for SpaceX’s “reliability team,” but no other details were immediately available.

In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, NASA was ordered to retire the space shuttle by the end of the decade. NASA had to quickly come up with another way to ship supplies and equipment to the outpost and on Dec. 23, 2008, Gerstenmaier announced SpaceX and Orbital Sciences had won contracts to build and launch commercial cargo ships.

When the $1.6 billion SpaceX contract was announced, founder Elon Musk said the company was virtually out of money after three straight failures of its Falcon 1 rocket. The rocket succeeded on its fourth attempt in September 2008, but the path forward was far from clear.

Then, the week before Christmas that year, “NASA called and told us that we’d won a ($1.6 billion) contract,” Musk said in a March 30, 2014, “60 Minutes” interview. “And I couldn’t even hold the phone, I just blurted out, ‘I love you guys.'”

Correspondent Scott Pelley: “They saved you.”

Musk: “Yeah, they did.”

At a news conference to announce the contract awards, Gerstenmaier said “this is a pretty monumental thing for us, this is a contract that we really need to keep space station flying and to service space station.”

“I think it’s exciting we’re doing this from the commercial side. We’ve got some good proposals and we’ve chosen the two winners.”

Since then, SpaceX has launched 80 Falcon 9 rockets, 19 space station resupply missions, three Falcon Heavy rockets and is gearing up to launch two astronauts to the space station in a Crew Dragon ferry ship, helping end NASA’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for trips to and from the space station.