May 31, 2023

NASA to split leadership of its human spaceflight program

NASA to split leadership of its human spaceflight program
NASA to split leadership of its human spaceflight programNASA to split leadership of its human spaceflight program
NASA's Kathy Lueders celebrates Crew Dragon's hatch opening on May 31.
Enlarge / NASA’s Kathy Lueders celebrates Crew Dragon’s hatch opening on May 31.

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.

Lueders will lead one segment of the new office, the Space Operations Mission Directorate, and oversee operational programs such as the International Space Station and commercial crew programs. The other part of the reorganized office, with the unwieldy name Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, will manage development of the Artemis Moon program, including the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and Human Landing System. Free will serve as its chief.

“Kathy has demonstrated exceptional leadership and overseen tremendous progress in her role as the associate administrator for human spaceflight,” said NASA’s administrator, Bill Nelson, in a statement. “And we’re thrilled to welcome Jim back to the agency. Together, this dynamic duo will help forge the future of human exploration.”

According to NASA, creating two separate components of the human spaceflight program will “ensure these critical areas have focused oversight teams in place to support and execute for mission success.” But it represents a significant change from the way NASA has operated for nearly two decades, in which a single individual bore responsibility for human spaceflight.

Free served as a deputy to the longest-running of these human spaceflight chiefs, William Gerstenmaier, from 2016 to 2017. He was seen as an eventual replacement by some within NASA, but Free left to work for Peerless Technologies in 2017 and most recently has worked as a consultant.

One agency source familiar with the change told Ars that Free’s return represents an effort to address a fairly “thin” leadership bench at the space agency. It’s an opportunity to bring back someone with experience developing hardware for deep space missions.

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.

The new leader of the Artemis program, Free, was director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center from 2013 to 2016. Before that, Free also served as the Orion spacecraft’s service module manager, giving him deep knowledge of NASA’s traditional space programs and its legacy contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“I’m excited to be back at NASA,” Free said in a statement. “Working hand-in-hand with our colleagues in Space Operations, we will focus on ensuring the success of Artemis missions in the near term while charting a clearly defined path for human exploration of Mars as our horizon goal.”