NASA reorganizes to split off Artemis moon missions

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NASA has split its Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two new missions, one that focuses on deep-space exploration and the other on low-Earth orbit.

As part of the move, Kathy Lueders will turn over leadership of Artemis to Jim Free, a former deputy with NASA returning after four years in the private sector. Free will head the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate while Lueders will head up the other half, the Space Operations Mission Directorate.

Lueders has been leading NASA’s headline-grabbing directorate since May 2020, overseeing the return of astronauts launching from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era and the preparation of the first rocket launch capable of sending humans to the moon since the Apollo era.

She had taken over the position that included getting the Artemis program back on track after the resignation of former head of human exploration Doug Loverro under the Trump administration, who said at the time his departure was due to “risk” taking in the push to reach Trump’s 2024 goal of putting the first woman on the moon.

Lueders previously was Commercial Crew Program manager and has continued to foster commercial partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing for crew services to the ISS, something that will be a major part of her responsibilities in her redefined role. That familiarity with commercial partners helped steer the Artemis mission lunar landing system decisions in the last 15 months, with the contract being awarded ultimately to SpaceX.

Now those decisions and partnerships will fall under Free, although the top three positions at agency, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy and Associate Administrator Bob Cabana remain in place. All of NASA’s directorates, which also include Science, Aeronautics Research, Space Technology and Mission Support, report up to Nelson.

Nelson announced the shift ahead of a town hall Tuesday.

“NASA has long set the vision for space exploration, not only for our nation but also for the world,” Nelson said. “This reorganization positions NASA and the United States for success as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, all while supporting the continued commercialization of space and research on the International Space Station. This also will allow the United States to maintain its leadership in space for decades to come.”

While Leuders’ main focus will be fostering the continued support for the space station, eventually, the directorate will expand to beyond low-Earth orbit to include operations that sustain NASA’s presence on and around the moon.

“The space station is the cornerstone of our human spaceflight efforts, and the commercial crew and cargo systems that support the microgravity laboratory are the building blocks to our continued success,” Lueders said. “We’ll work closely across mission directorates to achieve even greater successes to come, including expanding the low-Earth orbit economy, launching our state-of-the-art science missions, and getting ready for future operations at the moon and Mars.”

Free said the agency will stay focused on the first three missions to the moon and attempt to stay on schedule. Artemis I is slated to lift off from Kennedy Space Center as early as November with a crewed Artemis II mission in 2023 to orbit the moon followed by Artemis III that looks to put the first woman as part of a two-person team on the lunar surface by 2024.

“I’m excited to be back at NASA. Working hand-in-hand with our colleagues in Space Operations, we will focus on ensuring the success of Artemis missions in the near term while charting a clearly defined path for human exploration of Mars as our horizon goal,” Free said.

The transition will continue over the next several months as NASA continues to push forward on Artemis I and ISS operations.

“Together, this dynamic duo will help forge the future of human exploration,” Nelson said.

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