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NASA’s new chief of human spaceflight has a commercial background

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.

NASA

On Friday morning, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that he had selected Kathy Lueders to serve as the space agency’s new chief of human spaceflight. In this position, she will help set human spaceflight policy and implement it across the agency. Her top mandate will be getting humans to the Moon by 2024, or soon thereafter.

“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,” Bridenstine said. “Kathy’s the right person to extend the space economy to the lunar vicinity and achieve the ambitious goals we’ve been given.”

As program manager for Commercial Crew—which recently saw SpaceX launch NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station—Lueders has led the one big-ticket program for the space agency that has delivered for Bridenstine. Other high-profile programs, including the Space Launch System rocket and James Webb Space Telescope, have continued to experience delays.

Several sources indicated that this hire is consistent with Bridenstine’s view that commercial space companies will play an increasingly important role in human space exploration going forward. Bridenstine has been pushing NASA to do more of its bidding on the basis of fixed price contracts and favoring bidders that also invest in their own hardware and seek to sell their spaceflight services to customers other than NASA.

As leader of the commercial crew program, Lueders was deliberative. But she also recognized the cultural differences between NASA and companies like SpaceX, which seek to move quickly. In the end, she successfully molded the disparate workforces of NASA and SpaceX into a cohesive team that culminated in a mission that has been successful to date.

Steve Stich, her deputy, will step up to become the commercial crew program manager.

Lueders will replace Doug Loverro, who resigned from NASA a little more than three weeks ago. As Ars reported shortly after the fact, Loverro left NASA after he improperly intervened in the contracting process for a Human Landing System to take astronauts down to the lunar surface. NASA’s inspector general has not yet completed his report, but Loverro is believed to have spoken with Boeing during a black-out period of the bid process.

Loverro had worked at NASA for only about six months. Before him, Bill Gerstenmaier had spent about a decade in the position, superintending the end of the space shuttle program and final assembly of the International Space Station and trying to chart a deep space program. Several months after Gerstenmaier’s departure, he took at job at SpaceX working as an engineer on the company’s human spaceflight vehicles. Sources say he is happy there, enjoying being outside the Beltway and tackling technical challenges.

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