NASA’s body responsible for managing manned spaceflight will be split into two different directorates, the agency’s head announced on Tuesday, initiating a major restructuring that previous officials have tried and failed to do for years. The move comes as private companies like SpaceX demonstrate leaner methods of housing people in space and NASA drives ambitious plans to build settlements on the lunar surface over the next decade.
The dissolution of NASA’s human research wing, known as the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, will spawn two new bodies: first, the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, which will manage NASA’s most ambitious development programs such as the Artemis program that are yet to come phases are under construction and testing. The second will be the Space Operations Mission Directorate, which will handle routine operational programs such as the International Space Station and the Commercial Crew Program. Agency officials say categorizing programs by level of development, rather than subject, will help refine NASA’s focus.
“Two heads are better than one.”
The organizational reorganization was a “strong” recommendation from President Biden’s transition team, Nelson told reporters during a press conference on the changes. A big benefit of the change is NASA’s budgeting process, which is often complex and often met with disapproval from members of Congress who complain that NASA is not providing enough clarity about its exploration plans. With the comprehensive human exploration program now divided into two parts, complex and sometimes ambiguous programs will not be mixed up with NASA’s routine programs as much. And the two bodies will have separate leaders, rather than a single official whose workload has grown dramatically in recent years.
NASA’s head of human exploration, Kathy Lueders, will now lead a new directorate focused on space operations. (NASA / Bill Ingalls)
“Two heads are better than one,” said Kathy Lueders, the current head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, during a city hall in Washington, DC, on Tuesday with agency staff. Lueders, who previously headed NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, will step from her post as head of manned spaceflight to head the Space Operations Directorate. Jim Free, a former assistant assistant administrator who held senior roles in NASA’s Orion capsule program, will lead the mission directorate for exploration systems development.
But not everyone in the space industry will be happy with the change. Lueders, considered by many to be a champion for commercial space due to her experience leading the Commercial Crew Program in the early years, will no longer be as involved in the agency’s largest development programs as Artemis. Critics of the restructuring are also likely to see it as more bureaucracy and a new burden on the coordination between the two agencies that need to stay in touch on relevant space programs.
“A decision as simple as falling from a tree trunk”
“We’re not really adding a whole new layer of people,” NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy told reporters after City Hall, responding to the criticism of the move. “Very few additional positions are required … the challenges we face in cross-organizational coordination are exactly the same as they are today.”
“Both people are extremely skilled,” Nelson told reporters. “It was obvious, it was common sense, that Kathy’s success in the Mission Directorate for Space Operations should continue.” In a southern colloquial language, he added that his decision to choose Lueders and Free for the roles “was as easy as falling from a log”.
Studies conducted by the senior leadership of NASA under the Trump administration when Nelson’s predecessor Jim Bridenstine was running NASA recommended a similar idea: NASA should move items related to its ambitious Artemis program into a separate directorate outsource and give it the focus and resources it would take to implement an ambitious schedule for missioning astronauts on the moon by 2024. That council was put on hold at the time, current and former officials say, in part because it drained resources from other directorates, which frustrated members of Congress.
But now, the growing activity in commercial spaceflight and the increasing frequency of manned spaceflight, as SpaceX’s most recent all-civil mission in orbit last week demonstrated, warrants changes in the way NASA has run its largest manned space programs in almost nearly a decade managed executives say.
“How are we going to handle this huge change in scope?”
“The past decade has seen extraordinary change and growth,” said Melroy at City Hall. “NASA’s impact on commercial space has created new capabilities that we didn’t even know we could rely on.” Citing future development plans with NASA’s long-delayed and inflated Space Launch System, due to launch for the first time later this year or early next year, Melroy added, “This is exactly the time for us to take a deep breath and say,“ Wow, we have a chain of development programs, not just one monolithic program anymore. How are we going to cope with this huge change in scope? ‘”
NASA’s Artemis program encompasses a wide range of technologies that fall under the now decentralized Human Exploration Directorate. SpaceX is developing its Starship system to send NASA’s first astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 (that will likely be delayed). A team of international partners is working on a new space station called Gateway, which will orbit the moon. Lockheed Martin is building NASA’s Orion crew capsule to help astronauts get to the moon. NASA’s Space Launch System, a giant rocket largely managed by Boeing, has been under construction for more than a decade to launch the Orion capsule to the gateway where the SpaceX spaceship will pick up astronauts and land on the lunar surface will. Artemis is a multibillion dollar fandango, and to date everything has stood alongside other routine programs like the ISS, a $ 100 billion orbital research post that has hosted rotating crews of international astronauts for over 20 years.
“This approach allows one mission directorate to operate in space while the other is building space systems,” Melroy said.