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NASA replaces key administrator amid push to return to moon

William Gerstenmaier, head of the agency's human exploration office, has been demoted.

House Science Committee Hold Hearing On Deep Space Exploration And Recent Orion Test

William Gerstenmaier, a NASA veteran, has been demoted.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

NASA has shaken up it leadership ranks as the Trump administration pushes the agency to return to the moon. William Gerstenmaier, head of the agency's human exploration office, was suddenly demoted on Wednesday.

Gerstenmaier, who had been at the agency since 1977, had been working with Boeing and SpaceX as they develop spacecraft to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. He was also spearheading the agency's effort to return astronauts to the moon.

In an email obtained by CNET, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told employees Wednesday that Gerstenmaier would become a special assistant to Jim Morhard, the deputy administrator.

"As you know, NASA has been given a bold challenge to put the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, with a focus on the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars," Bridenstine's email said. "In an effort to meet this challenge, I have decided to make leadership changes to the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate."

Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who had served as the deputy associate administrator for the human exploration office, will take over for Gerstenmaier, according to Bridenstine's email. Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of human exploration, has also been reassigned as a special adviser to Steve Jurczyk, NASA's associate administrator.

In March, Vice President Mike Pence surprised many when he challenged NASA to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024, moving up the agency's timeline for a return to the lunar surface by several years.

"What we need now is urgency," Pence said during a speech to a crowd at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years."

At the time, NASA's Moon to Mars page still listed 2028 as the target for putting astronauts on the moon. It was soon updated with 2024 as the new target for astronauts on the moon.