Bill Nelson’s NASA divides key space program leadership between Kathy Lueders and Jim Free

There was something refreshing last summer when NASA promoted Kathy Lueders from her leadership role over Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs to lead Human Explorations & Operations.

A key goal of the Artemis program is to send the first woman and person of color to the Moon in this decade. It only felt appropriate that a highly qualified female would make key Artemis program decisions after the unceremonious departure of her predecessor.

Now Bill Nelson’s NASA is dividing the human spaceflight program into two separate mission directorates: Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate and Space Operations Mission Directorate.

Jim Free, a former NASA deputy, will take on exploration duties while Lueders retains her responsibilities in operations.

Ars Technica first broke the story today:

In a significant change with implications for future exploration missions, NASA will announce today that it is splitting the duties of its human spaceflight office into two segments.

As part of the reorganization, the agency’s current leader of all human spaceflight activities, Kathy Lueders, will see her duties pared back. NASA has also brought back a former senior manager, Jim Free, to serve as a program leader.

NASA has since made the news official:

Jim Free will return to the agency as associate administrator of ESDMD. The new directorate will define and manage systems development for programs critical to Artemis and plan the Moon to Mars exploration approach in an integrated manner. […]

Kathy Lueders will serve as associate administrator of the agency’s new Space Operations Mission Directorate. This directorate will focus on launch and space operations, including the International Space Station, the commercialization of low-Earth orbit, and eventually, sustaining operations on and around the Moon.

The space administration goes on to explain the thinking behind the decision to split the human spaceflight and exploration role into two roles:

Creating two separate mission directorates will ensure these critical areas have focused oversight teams in place to support and execute for mission success. This approach with two areas focused on human spaceflight allows one mission directorate to operate in space while the other builds future space systems, so there is a constant cycle of development and operations to advance NASA’s goals in space exploration.

As Ars notes, the change in leadership organization will not be inconsequential:

However, another industry source was more critical of the change, saying it could be a setback for commercial space. “This will just add a layer of red tape and send mixed messages to Capitol Hill, industry, and international partners,” the source said.

Lueders, by most accounts, has done a commendable job in recent years. Under her leadership, NASA and SpaceX managed to push the commercial crew program safely over the finish line, with Crew Dragon now flying operational missions to the International Space Station. She has also managed to steer the Artemis program forward, selecting SpaceX to build a Human Landing System in April and persisting with that decision despite an uproar in Congress and a lawsuit by another lander bidder, Blue Origin.

She will now be removed from that decision-making process by someone with much less familiarity with commercial space.

Meanwhile, the future of human spaceflight as it relates to ISS is being debated in Congress at this very moment: NASA’s Future in Low Earth Orbit: Considerations for International Space Station Extension and Transition. More food for thought: Bolden would have ‘preferred’ to see a woman lead NASA

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