NASA Splits Human Spaceflight Directorate Into Two

NASA Splits Human Spaceflight Directorate Into Two

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced today that he is dividing responsibility for the human spaceflight program into two. One Mission Directorate will focus on space operations and the other on develoing systems for exploring the Moon and Mars. It is a return to the NASA organization prior to 2011, but the decision caught the space community by surprise, prompting speculation about motives that might be in play.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Like most agencies and companies, NASA periodically reorganizes its management structure.

During most of the first decade of this century, NASA had a Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) in charge of the International Space Station (ISS) and the space shuttle programs, and an Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) overseeing the Constellation program developing systems to return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars.

By 2011, the Constellation program was cancelled and the space shuttle program terminated. NASA’s focus was ISS operations including development of “commercial cargo” and “commercial crew” space transportation systems to resupply the ISS, and for the longer term, development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for an Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to human missions to Mars in the 2030s.

It was a sea change, and NASA decided to merge SOMD and ESMD into the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). Bill Gerstenmaier, who had headed SOMD since 2005, became HEOMD’s Associate Administrator (AA), a position he held until 2019. ESMD’s AA, Doug Cooke, retired.

Now, 10 years later, ISS operations are in full swing, commercial cargo and commercial crew have come of age, and NASA is looking to build partnerships with the private sector to build commercial space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO) as successors to ISS as part of what it hopes will be a burgeoning commercial LEO economy. NASA does not want to own future space stations, but simply be one of many customers for space station services offered by the private sector as it is for commercial crew.

At the same time, the agency is pursuing the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon in the next few years and someday go to Mars. As with LEO, the goal is to purchase services from companies providing everything from the Human Landing Systems (HLS) to get down to and back from the surface of the Moon, to habitats on the surface, to the spacesuits worn by astronauts. These technologies are not as far along, however, and NASA expects to be involved in developing them.

HEOMD has been doing it all, but Nelson decided the portfolio has grown too large, consuming half the agency’s budget. As of today, he has split it back into two parts with very similar names: the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) and the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD).

Nelson’s predecessor, Jim Bridenstine, also had wanted to reorganize and create a “Moon to Mars Mission Directorate” but could not win congressional approval. The Trump Administration had proposed abolishing the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), which has strong support in Congress, as part of the restructuring.  NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana stressed today that this reorganization does not change anything at STMD.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator, Space Operations Mission Directorate. Photo credit: NASA

Last year, Kathy Lueders became the first woman to head HEOMD. Now she will be in charge of SOMD and Jim Free, a former NASA Center Director who is returning to the agency, will be the AA for ESDMD.

SOMD will oversee launch and space operations, including ISS, LEO commercialization and eventually sustaining operations on and around the Moon.

ESDMD will define and manage systems development for Artemis and be in charge of planning an integrated Moon to Mars exploration strategy.

The change was suddenly announced today at a Town Hall meeting for NASA employees at noon and a follow-up media teleconference later in the day. It is effective immediately. A NASA spokesperson told that Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved it and NASA’s union has been “informed.” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said she has been advised implementation normally takes 90-120 days, but “we’ll take all the time we need to make the transition happen smoothly and safely.”

Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. Photo credit: NASA

Oddly, the press release about the change and the Town Hall meeting took place at the exact time two NASA officials — ISS Program Director Robyn Gatens and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins — and others were testifying to a congressional committee about the future of the ISS and LEO commercialization. The hearing schedule was well known.

While returning to the previous organizational structure might seem logical as human spaceflight activities in LEO and deep space ramp up, today’s timing and what some view as Lueders’ demotion has struck a nerve with some in the space community.

During the media teleconference, Nelson pushed back on the notion that Lueders was being sidelined. Before becoming the head of HEOMD, she led NASA’s commercial crew program which helped bring SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to operational status. Nelson praised her for that success and insisted his decision to put her in charge of SOMD was because he wants to see future commercial partnerships similarly succeed.

“Kathy has done such an outstanding job in bringing about successful commercial operations that it was obvious — it was as easy as falling off a log for me — that that’s exactly where she should be.” — Bill Nelson

Lueders has developed a loyal following in the space community, however, and many on Space Twitter were unassuaged. Although she has spent a long career at NASA, she is viewed as emblematic of the “new NASA” more in tune with the commercial partnerships NASA has been embracing recently than the huge cost-plus contracts to big aerospace contractors of yore.  They think she should be in charge of developing the new systems for exploring the Moon and Mars, not just operations.

The worry seems to be that Free’s appointment might signal the agency is reverting to its old ways. Free joined NASA in 1990 as a propulsion engineer, later became a systems engineer and worked on the Orion spacecraft to take astronauts to the Moon and Mars — which is still in development 15 years after the program began — and eventually served as Director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center from 2013-2016.  He then moved to NASA Headquarters and worked in HEOMD as a Deputy Associate Administrator-Technical for one year, supporting the Orion, Space Launch System (SLS), and ISS programs.  He left NASA in 2017 and was Vice President, Aerospace Systems Group for Peerless Technologies until 2020 when he became a consultant. He and Nelson both were members of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).

Lueders and Free presented a united front at the briefings today with no obvious tension. Lueders joked that people are calling them the Dynamic Duo and it’s not clear who is Batman and who is Robin, but “I have a feeling every once in a while we’ll be switching back and forth.”

Her bottom line:

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to have a partner here. I keep thinking two heads are better than one and this is going to be a lot of fun.” — Kathy Lueders

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