Koerner New Head of Orion Program for NASA

Koerner New Head of Orion Program for NASA

NASA announced today that Catherine Koerner is the new head of the Orion program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.  A former flight director, Koerner has 30 years experience in the human spaceflight program and joins other women being assigned to top jobs managed by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).

Catherine (Cathy) Koerner. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford.

Koerner has been the Director of the Human Health and Performance Directorate (HHPD) at JSC since 2016 and was deputy director before that. She has a B.S. and M.S. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Orion is the spacecraft NASA astronauts will use to fly to lunar orbit and perhaps someday to Mars. Under development since 2006, Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor.  It will be launched by NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

The first flight, a test without a crew, is currently expected no later than November 2021. The first flight with a crew is anticipated in 2023.  It will go around the Moon. The first crew to land on the Moon since the final Apollo mission over 50 years ago is scheduled for launch in 2024. Orion will take them to lunar orbit where they will dock with a Human Landing System (HLS), launched separately, to take them down to and back from the surface where they will redock with Orion for the trip home.

Koerner’s appointment is part of ongoing management changes in HEOMD, which oversees all of NASA’s human exploration programs as well as other aspects of the agency’s mission.

She replaces Mark Kirasich who now is acting head of HEOMD’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division.  Robyn Gatens was just made acting head of the International Space Station program, succeeding Sam Scimemi.

HEOMD itself is now headed by Kathy Lueders, the first woman to hold that position. Like Koerner and Gatens, Lueders has decades of experience in NASA’s human spaceflight program and was manager of the Commercial Crew Program before taking her current job. She replaced Doug Loverro.

NASA has ratcheted up its attention to workforce diversity in recent months. In July, Administrator Jim Bridenstine added “inclusion” as a fifth NASA core value (the others are safety, integrity, teamwork, and excellence).

Koerner has 30 years of experience in human spaceflight, including seven (2000-2007) as a flight director, six as deputy manager of the ISS vehicle office (2008-2013), and two as manager of the ISS Transportation Integration Office (2013-2015) before moving to HHPD.

In a profile published by NASA in 2004 when she was one of three flight directors for STS-114, the return-to-flight mission after the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, Koerner said she had never been treated differently at JSC because of her gender. “If you do a job and do it well, then you’ll be noticed for doing your job, instead of being noticed because you’re a woman or a minority.”

Before joining JSC as a Propulsion Systems flight controller in the mid-1990s, Koerner worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on robotic Mars missions.

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