Meet NASA’s Kathy Lueders

The veteran manager tasked with steering NASA into a new era of human spaceflight

When NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Kathy Lueders in June and asked if she wanted to run the agency’s roughly 200-person Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, she said yes for at least two reasons.

She would remain involved with the Commercial Crew launch program that, for six years, she shepherded from a troubled effort to one that in May delivered two astronauts to the International Space Station inside a SpaceX capsule for a nine-week stay.

The other reason, and possibly the bigger one, was the scope of the challenge that Lueders, an industrial engineer by training, would get to embrace.

“I sat and thought about what’s going on with the rest of HEO right now, and realized we have a crapload of missions going on,” she told me in a Zoom interview during AIAA’s virtual Propulsion & Energy forum in August.

That schedule includes missions that will determine whether NASA succeeds at firmly establishing commercial flight to and from the International Space Station and returning American astronauts to the moon, this time to stay.

Summing all that up as a “crapload” is classic Lueders, and the word isn’t an understatement. In addition to the roster of uncrewed missions for which HEO provides launches under its Launch Services Program, the directorate plans to launch people to space and bring them home at least seven times in four years. Now that SpaceX has demonstrated its Crew Dragon and is set to complete its first regular flight this month, Boeing must do so with its Starliner; if all goes as planned, routine flights with both vehicles will begin in 2021.

Looming on the schedule, after the Artemis-1 uncrewed inaugural launch of a Space Launch System rocket, will be a crewed launch around the moon called Artemis-2 ahead of the planned moon landing, which NASA is determined to complete before the end of 2024. The Artemis-3 lunar landing will be the most challenging, with a timeline that NASA and U.S. lawmakers labeled as aggressive even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the agency to shift most of its workforce to telework for the foreseeable future.

Covid-19, in fact, is often on Lueders’ mind. In March, confirmed cases in Louisiana and Mississippi prompted NASA to halt construction for two months on the core stages of SLS rockets at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana and testing at nearby Stennis Space Center in Mississippi; the first SLS launch is scheduled for November 2021.

“It was tough for the team because they’ve, over the last year, doubled down and were hitting all of their development goals up to that point, really showing great progress. I think the team’s been heroic over the last few months, as we came back.”

She was referring to how NASA and its contractors have resumed the Green Run test campaign, green referring to the first time engineers will power up the core stage for the inaugural SLS flight. To guard against additional transmission of the virus, Green Run testing at Stennis was paused for two months. Rather than lose time, managers looked at the SLS development schedule and realized they could continue software development and testing remotely without violating any covid-19 restrictions, and in this way they kept the Green Run on schedule. In May, NASA approved personnel to start returning to Stennis, donned in the proper personal protective equipment. As of this writing, the campaign was preparing for its final test, scheduled for this month. This will be a hot fire test of the flight model’s four RS-25 engines, the same kind that powered the space shuttle orbiters. The engines will run for eight minutes, just as they will on the inaugural flight, when they must propel an uncrewed Orion crew capsule to orbit.

Since May, SLS testing has proceeded apace, minus another temporary halt in late August when Tropical Storm Laura made landfall on the Gulf Coast. “I sometimes tell people ‘Let me know when the locusts show up,’” Lueders chuckled, “because so far we’re dealing with covid, technical issues, we got a couple hurricanes heading for the Louisiana coast. Everything’s getting thrown at us right now.” As of September, no storms had done damage.

To Lueders, the SpaceX launch and the splashdown of the Crew Dragon capsule in August underscored that big challenges can be overcome. That mission was called Demo-2, because it was the second and final demonstration required before NASA would clear the Crew Dragon design for routine flights. A setback came about a year before the launch, when the capsule originally designated for that flight was destroyed during testing at the company’s landing site in Florida, because a fuel leak caused an explosion.

Reaching that conclusion required pausing some preparations so NASA and SpaceX could conduct a detailed investigation. Then came the pandemic, which forced NASA and SpaceX to quickly adapt their processes to include social distancing and personal protective equipment. They limited the number of personnel on site at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and required those interacting with the two astronauts to wear masks and gloves to reduce any chance of virus transmission. That same flexibility will be required during preparations for the upcoming Artemis missions, the first of which will be the 2021 inaugural flight of the SLS design.

“We know now that we can” do what’s required to safely launch humans, or at least their vehicle, to space “while we as a nation and the world” work to tame the pandemic, Lueders said. “They just don’t give up, and they’re moving so hard toward these missions. We’ll see where we end up.”

Lueders thinks the team can still make the November 2021 date for SLS, “but it doesn’t help at the beginning of the campaign to be using some of your margin for hurricanes and covid,” she said. In the uncrewed test, an SLS will boost an Orion capsule on its way around the moon, which Orion will orbit for six days.

Also, at least two contractors must be selected to make competing versions of lunar landers, in hopes that at least one will be ready in time to meet NASA’s deadline of returning U.S. astronauts to the moon by the end of 2024. The U.S. House of Representatives approved $628 million for lander development in fiscal 2021, far short of the $3 billion that NASA requested.

“Obviously getting a third of the money makes it tough, but we also know we’re not done yet,” Lueders said, referring to the fact that the Senate has yet to pass its fiscal 2021 spending bill. In the meantime, the three companies awarded a combined $967 million in April are working “gangbusters” to refine their lander designs and establish the certification criteria before the February downselect. At least two designs will be chosen for further funding, but having one ready in time depends in part on the amount of funding granted when House and Senate appropriators reconcile the two bills.

The best the agency can do for now, Lueders said, is prepare for every contingency.

“I’ve learned in my career that you can go lay out the best plan, but don’t get too fixated with that because lots of things can happen during development,” she said. “So what we’re really trying to do right now is lay out the pieces, get all the pieces going, lay out our initial plans for the missions. And then as we see the progress of all the different pieces as they’re developing, we’ll go lay in the timing of all the different pieces.”

“I sometimes tell people ‘Let me know when the locusts show up, because so far we’re dealing with covid, technical issues, we got a couple hurricanes heading for the Louisiana coast. Everything’s getting thrown at us right now.”

Kathy Lueders

Meet NASA’s Kathy Lueders