If there was one surprise from Wednesday’s hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee about NASA’s human spaceflight plans, it was the news that NASA was reassigning Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley, who will now be the associate director for strategic capabilities at the Johnson Space Center. What was particularly surprising was how the news was announced: not by NASA but by a member of the committee, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who chairs the space subcommittee. “Recently we just received word that the Constellation program manager was removed from his position,” she said towards the end of the hearing’s first panel, with NASA administrator Charles Bolden as the sole witness. “Is that correct?”
“That is probably correct, ma’am,” he responded. Pressed by Giffords, he went on to say, “It was not an action that I took or directed. It would be an action that would be taken by the Exploration [Systems] Mission Directorate head, Doug Cooke, and Johnson Space Center director Mike Coats. I have been in consultation with them about that, and my understanding was that they were going to get together with him this morning.”
NASA officials later confirmed the reassignment, stating that Hanley will be tasked with keeping the center’s human spaceflight capabilities intact during the end of the shuttle program and the planned closeout of Constellation. However, the timing of the move—literally while the agency’s head was being grilled on Capitol Hill—′can hardly be considered wise.
Giffords said she was worried this was a sign that NASA was not committed to working on Constellation, which remains funded through the end of the year. “[W]hen the Constellation manager is removed from his position, it frankly makes me personally very dubious” that the agency wants to make progress on the program in FY2010.
Hanley, Bolden said, “is an incredibly talented individual. Jeff and I have spoken for quite some time, since I became the NASA administrator, about his future.” Bolden wasn’t able to continue that statement because the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bart Gordon, cut him off. But Giffords got one more comment in: “It’s of great concern to us that you take the manager out of his position and reassign him to another position, and I just want to let you know that I’m very concerned by that.”
Other members of Congress also took note of the reassignment. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told the Huntsville Times he sees the move as an effort by NASA leadership to quash dissent in the ranks. “NASA leadership removed a capable program manager in its continuing efforts to suppress internal voices of dissent to their visionless space exploration plan,” he said. “This action furthers an atmosphere where NASA’s leadership team has become a key impediment to space exploration moving forward.”
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), in a press release issued late today by the Senate Commerce Committee, where she is the ranking member, also raised concerns. “I am deeply troubled to have learned that the program manager for the Constellation program was removed from his post,” she said in the press release, which hasn’t yet appeared on the committee web site as of Wednesday night. “The timing of the program manager’s removal raises significant concerns about whether NASA is continuing to implement the authorized program as directed by Congress.” She added she would ask the NASA Inspector General to perform “a full and thorough investigation” of the reassignment.