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Elon Musk Poaches NASA's Ex-Head of Manned Spaceflight

By Rich Smith – Updated Feb 11, 2020 at 3:48PM

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Demoted by NASA, William Gerstenmaier finds a new home at SpaceX.

Seven months ago, NASA fumbled the ball. Today, Elon Musk picked it up.

In July 2019, NASA shocked space fans (and Congress) with its announcement that it was removing William Gerstenmaier -- a four-decade veteran of the space agency, and for 14 years the head of its "Human Exploration and Operations" division in charge of astronaut missions in space -- from his post, and naming him merely a "special advisor to NASA's deputy administrator" instead.  

William Gerstenmaier

William Gerstenmaier. Image source: NASA.

Space fans viewed the move as a demotion -- and not just space fans, but honest-to-goodness Congresspeople -- the people in charge of funding NASA's budget. As pointed out at the time, Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson pronounced herself "baffled by the NASA Administrator's decision" ahead of the Trump Administration's "challenging" efforts to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024, calling NASA's move "misguided." Oklahoman Congresswoman Kendra Horn worried aloud "about the impacts that such abrupt leadership changes" pose for NASA.

But NASA's loss could be SpaceX's gain. This morning, CNBC reported that SpaceX has hired away Gerstenmaier to work in its own "mission assurance" department. There, the man many consider "one of the world's top specialists in flying humans in space" should be able to provide invaluable insight into NASA's priorities in choosing winners and losers for its crewed space missions.

SpaceX could launch its first astronauts as early as May, and begin competing with rival Boeing (NYSE: BA) for future missions thereafter.  

As the man in charge of NASA's Space Launch System development, Gerstenmaier will also have knowledge of that program's strengths and weaknesses, potentially aiding SpaceX in designing its new Starship space vessel to better compete with SLS -- still a NASA favorite.

In one fell swoop, Elon Musk has strengthened SpaceX's competitive position immeasurably.

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