NASA taps commercial crew chief Kathy Lueders to lead human spaceflight office

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NASA has picked Kathy Lueders to lead its Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, the office working to get astronauts back to the moon and then on to Mars.

Lueders is a longtime NASA employee who since 2014 had led the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been encouraging the development of private crew-carrying spacecraft. One such astronaut taxi, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, carried NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time late last month on a landmark mission called Demo-2.

Related: Amazing photos of SpaceX’s 1st astronaut launch for NASA

“Kathy gives us the extraordinary experience and passion we need to continue to move forward with Artemis and our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement today (June 12). (Artemis is NASA’s program of crewed lunar exploration.)

“She has a deep interest in developing commercial markets in space, dating back to her initial work on the space shuttle program,” Bridenstine said in the statement. “From Commercial Cargo and now Commercial Crew, she has safely and successfully helped push to expand our nation’s industrial base. Kathy’s the right person to extend the space economy to the lunar vicinity and achieve the ambitious goals we’ve been given.”

Those goals include establishing a sustainable, long-term human presence on and around the moon by 2028, getting astronauts to Mars in the 2030s and helping to incubate a thriving off-Earth economy.

Lueders is the HEO chief effectively immediately. Former Commercial Crew deputy manager Steve Stich now takes over the top job in that program, and Ken Bowersox resumes his role as HEO deputy chief, NASA officials said.

Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut, had led HEO in an acting capacity since last month, when Doug Loverro abruptly resigned after less than a year on the job. Loverro had taken over after the July 2019 reassignment of longtime HEO leader Bill Gerstenmaier (though Bowersox filled the several-month gap between the two, serving another short stint as acting chief).

Lueders has worked for NASA since 1992, when she became Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System and Reaction Control Systems Depot manager at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. 

She then moved on to the agency’s ISS Program, serving as transportation integration manager. In this post, Lueders led commercial cargo services to the ISS, which began in 2012. Both SpaceX and Northrop Grumman currently fly robotic resupply missions to the orbiting lab, with the cargo version of Dragon and a spacecraft called Cygnus, respectively.

Lueders became acting Commercial Crew manager in 2013 and was officially selected for the job a year later.

“I want to thank Ken and the entire HEO team for their steady support of Kathy in making Commercial Crew such a success,” Bridenstine said. “I know they’ll give her the same support as she moves out in her new role. This is such a critical time for the agency and for HEO. We still need to bring Doug and Bob home safely, and we’re not going to lose focus. We have our sights set on the moon and even deeper into space, and Kathy is going to help lead us there.”

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