Cathy Koerner to Take Over Artemis Program as Jim Free Moves Up to AA

Cathy Koerner to Take Over Artemis Program as Jim Free Moves Up to AA

NASA’s Artemis program is about to get a new head, Cathy Koerner, as Jim Free moves up to Associate Administrator, the agency’s top civil servant. Bob Cabana, the current AA, is retiring. Koerner is Free’s deputy and will provide continuity for managing the program to return astronauts to the lunar surface in the 2025-2026 time frame.

On Monday, Cabana announced he will retire on December 31 after 38 years at the agency. A former space shuttle astronaut and former Director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center and Kennedy Space Center, Cabana has been part of a closely knit trio of NASA’s top leadership, all former astronauts. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle when he was a Member of the House of Representatives, and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, a career NASA astronaut who piloted two space shuttle missions and commanded a third, are political appointees.

The Associate Administrator (AA) is the top civil servant in the agency, the third highest ranking position and essentially Chief Operating Officer.

Jim Free, incoming NASA Associate Administrator. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA announced tonight that Jim Free will succeed Cabana. He currently leads one of NASA’s five programmatic Mission Directorates one level below AA. As Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD), Free is in charge of developing and implementing the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon and then go to Mars. He had a long career at NASA, rising to Director of Glenn Research Center. He left in 2017 to work in the private sector, but returned in 2021 to lead ESDMD when it was split from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

With about $7-8 billion a year, ESDMD oversees the Space Launch System, Orion, Exploration Ground Systems, Human Landing Systems, the Gateway lunar space station and the many other pieces of the Artemis program as well as developing the strategy and architecture for long-term sustainable lunar operations as a steppingstone to Mars. He posted on X earlier today that he is in the midst of the second Architecture Concept Review for the Moon to Mars program. The first ACR was released in April and NASA intends to review it annually.

Melroy is to his left. On his right is his deputy, Cathy Koerner. NASA also said today that Koerner will succeed Free as head of ESDMD.

Cathy Koerner, incoming Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA

A NASA flight director at Johnson Space Center from 2000-2007, Koerner spent the next eight years in various positions at JSC in the space shuttle and International Space Station programs becoming manager of the ISS Transportation Integration Office from 2013-2015.

She then spent four years as Deputy Director and then Director of the Human Health and Performance Directorate before being tapped to serve as Orion Program Manager in 2020. Two years later she moved to Headquarters as Free’s deputy.

Nelson praised both of them. “So many of us in the NASA family have worked with Jim and have been inspired by his character and intellect” and he “will bring exceptional guidance and perspective to our leadership team.”

As for Koerner, “Cathy’s experience as the ESDMD deputy associate administrator – including her leadership in establishing and defining future space exploration architectures while overseeing the development of our deep space transportation systems – has prepared her for this new role” and her “leadership will help NASA continue to extend humanity’s reach in the cosmos.”

The changes become effective once Cabana retires.

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