NASA’s Human Space Exploration Division is Being Split in Two

Large government organizations require lots of people to run them.  NASA is no exception.  America’s space agency has long been under pressure to organizationally support its ongoing Artemis program to return to the moon. Now, it has taken a step in that direction by announcing that its Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate will split into two new ones: the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate and the Space Operations Missions Directorate.

The announcement came on September 21st from Bill Nelson, NASA’s administration, who also announced a press conference to discuss the changes further.  In that press conference, NASA’s leadership team outlined some of the reasons for the change.  

Recording of the Town Hall meeting discussing the Human Spaceflight reorganization.
Credit – NASA

A big one was a “strong” recommendation from President Joe Biden.  That suggestion stemmed from politician’s frustrations in dealing with the agency’s budgetary processes.  With the same directorate handling both the Artemis program and ongoing work in the ISS, it was difficult for the people who control the purse strings to understand what that money was going towards.

Expanding a bureaucracy isn’t always the most efficient way to do something, however.  That will be no exception with this transition.  Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, pointed out that “We’re actually not adding a whole new layer of people,” but that “the challenges that we have in coordinating across organizations is exactly the same as it is today.”

NASA’s description of the Artemis program.
Credit – NASA YouTube Channel

Those challenges include managing NASA’s increasingly complex human spaceflight programs.  With two separate directorates headed by two competent leaders, those programs will garner more specific attention.  The leaders they picked will have a significant impact how the success or failure of those programs.

NASA did select two very qualified individuals for those roles – Kathy Lueders was the current head of the predecessor directorate, where she was promoted to June of 2020. She previously had a leading role in the Commercial Crew Program, though she began her career in 1992 as a depot manager at the White Sands Test Facility after earning her B.S. in Industrial Engineering.  She’ll now lead the Space Operations Mission Directorate, taking over the ISS and other ongoing human spaceflight operations.

Kathy Lueders (right) will head the new Space Operations Mission Directorate, while Jim Free (left) will lead the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate.
Kathy Lueders (right) will head the new Space Operations Mission Directorate, while Jim Free (left) will lead the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate.
Credit – NASA / Aubrey Gemignani

To lead the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, NASA brought back Jim Free, a former employee who had retired in 2017 as the technical deputy associate administrator for the directorate that is being separated.  After a stint in private industry, including as an Executive Vice President at Peerless Aerospace, Jim came back to the agency to help develop the Artemis program.  His career started back in 1990 as a propulsion engineer, and he has worked at a variety of NASA facilities in his almost 30-year career at the agency.  

Critics point out that the added bureaucracy will now require these two leaders to communicate effectively to maintain the same leadership present under Ms. Lueder’s leadership previously.  According to the agency, no changes will impact the various NASA centers located around the country, and the personnel switching will be primarily focused on the headquarters in Washington. With luck, this organizational shake-up will be a way to prioritize goals correctly and allow Congress and the American public to see more directly what their space exploration money is being spent on.

Learn More:
NASA – NASA Leadership Positions Agency for Future – NASA splits human spaceflight directorate into two organizations – NASA SPLITS HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT DIRECTORATE INTO TWO

Lead Image:
Artemis program graphic
Credit – NASA