Lueders: Moon-by-2024 Won’t Happen Unless We Try

Lueders: Moon-by-2024 Won’t Happen Unless We Try

The new head of NASA’s human exploration program, Kathy Lueders, agreed today that getting people back on the Moon by 2024 is challenging, but pointed out it definitely will not happen unless NASA tries. She is the third Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) since March 2019 when the Trump Administration directed NASA to achieve that goal, now called the Artemis program. The first woman to lead NASA’s human spaceflight program, she answered questions from reporters today, her fourth day on the job.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). Credit: NASA

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine surprised just about everyone last Friday by announcing his appointment of Lueders, effective immediately.  She has been Manager of the Commercial Crew Program, which just saw the first launch of a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The mission is still underway. Her deputy, Steve Stitch, moved up to fill her job.

Lueders is a 28-year NASA veteran working on programs within HEOMD and its organizational predecessors, specifically the space shuttle and ISS programs. Most recently she has been assigned at Kennedy Space Center, but previously was at Johnson Space Center and the White Sands Test Facility.

She succeeds Doug Loverro, who resigned unexpectedly in mid-May after less than six months. Bridenstine declined to discuss Loverro’s departure today because it is a personnel matter. Loverro succeeded Bill Gerstenmaier, who was abruptly dismissed by Bridenstine in July 2019 after more than a decade leading human spaceflight at NASA.

Lueders expressed appreciation to both of them today.  “I worked for Doug Loverro for six months and learned a tremendous amount from him, so I appreciated his mentorship during that period of time, and … I appreciated Mr. Gerstenmaier’s before. … Every boss you have adds a little bit to your toolbox and he added some to mine.”

Acknowledging she has big shoes to fill, she joked “I realize I need to grow a few shoe sizes.”

This press briefing took place on the 37th  anniversary of the launch of the first American woman into space, Sally Ride, on June 18, 1983.  Lueders’ appointment as the first woman to be in charge of NASA’s human exploration program, which includes the charge to land the “first woman and the next man” on the Moon by 2024, has captured some attention.

Lueders said the significance did not dawn on her at first, but she is honored that woman and girls seem to be inspired by it.

When Jim [Bridenstine] asked me if I would take this role … I was more overwhelmed with the potential tasks in front of me. It was actually when I was talking to my husband that he made the point to me, and that made me stop and think about all of the other firsts that have been out there that really have paved my way. In fact, today is the day that Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman in space. That’s one of many firsts.

You know it’s been amazing to me over the last few days and seeing all the Tweets, Snapchats, Instagrams, all the notes from all the girls out there that really helped me realize the power that my being first means to them. They’re able to see themselves in me. I’m very honored by that. And I’m expecting really big things from them — you better get going!  I think when we can see ourselves in the people that are out there it makes us realize we can do it. And that’s very, very important for not only girls out there, but for all the people.

Indeed, she is facing a daunting portfolio.  HEOMD is responsible for executing the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024 and then go on to Mars with commercial and international partners; operating and utilizing the ISS with its international partners, including the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs; transitioning from the government-owned and operated ISS to what NASA hopes will be an era of commercial space stations where the agency pays only for services, the way it does for commercial crew and cargo; NASA’s ground and space-based communications networks; and acquiring launch services for all NASA spacecraft.

Is it realistic to get people back on the Moon by 2024, just four-and-a-half years from now?

I don’t have a crystal ball. … I wish I knew the answer. It would make my job a lot easier. We’re going to try. …  You need to start. One step at a time, right?  If you say I can’t get there, well, you’re not going to get there. … If things come up along the way where technically it takes us longer … we’ll go figure it out, but right now the team is trying.  It is tough.”

The Trump Administration chose 2024 as the deadline because it is the end of a second Trump term as President if he wins reelection.  Lueders agrees that is an aggressive schedule, but argued it is important to have aggressive schedules because they focus the team on achieving the goal.

Bridenstine said Lueders’ team leadership skill is one of the reasons he picked her.  “I’ve always been impressed with her ability to lead teams and her technical competence. … We have a big agenda to go back to the Moon by 2024. … We’re not naive as to how difficult this is, but … Kathy has a really strong ability to lead teams to achieve very difficult outcomes and we’re very excited about this.”

Lueders still is in charge of the commercial crew program, but at a much higher level than last week.  She answered a few questions about the ongoing Demo-2 flight of Crew Dragon.  The mission is proceeding so well that people are forgetting it is a demonstration flight, she said.  No decision has been made on how long the two crew members, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will remain on the ISS.  NASA wants to bring them back close to when SpaceX will be ready to launch the first operational mission, Crew-1, so the readiness of that spacecraft is one several factors playing in the decision.  Early August still seems likely, but is not confirmed.

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