Gerst the Politician, Gerst the Engineer

When the news broke yesterday that long-time head of human spaceflight at NASA, Bill Gerstenmaier, was joining SpaceX as a consultant, everyone got very excited…for the wrong reasons.

The collective reaction was that Gerst would be going to SpaceX to help its relationship (and to win contracts) with NASA, Congress, other parts of the government, or maybe even other governments entirely.

Other than disregarding the fact that Gerst is prohibited from a lot of that kind of work due to his history on the other side of it, that analysis is also disregarding an important bit of information: he is joining Hans Koenigsmann’s team, focused on reliability.

You don’t join Hans’ team to talk to government customers.

I’m hopeful—both personally and for his sake—that Gerst is heading to SpaceX not to be a political face for the organization or to schmooze inside the right DC circles, but rather to take things back to his roots as an engineer. I really hope his work at SpaceX looks a lot more like this than what the last few years of his work at NASA looked like.

He’s got a wealth of knowledge from the design, development, and operational cycles of Shuttle and Station. I’m sure, as the engineer he is, he’d love to pass that on to the next generation in a more hands-on way. Especially with how stuck and dull civil space policy is today.

He can play the part of the wise engineer, telling stories of the biggest wins and hardest failures of decades of human spaceflight programs which had many of each. He can ask wide-ranging questions with fresh eyes that see things the people intimately familiar with the systems will always overlook. And importantly for him, Gerst the Engineer, he can take on new problems with an exciting vision and a hell of a lot of momentum.

Beyond that, though, I still can’t shake a certain feeling. In some ways, admittedly from the outside, Gerstenmaier seems to be the antithesis of SpaceX culture—emotionally reserved (maybe even repressed), a preference for the slow-and-steady, and not necessarily prone to taking risks.

Or maybe that’s what Washington did to our beloved engineer.