The body of NASA tasked with managing human spaceflight is being split into two distinct directorates, the agency’s chief announced on Tuesday, embarking on a major reorganization that past officials have tried and failed to execute for years. The move comes as private companies like SpaceX demonstrate leaner methods of putting people in space and as NASA pushes ahead with ambitious plans to build settlements on the surface of the Moon in the next decade.
The breakup of NASA’s human exploration wing, called 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 like the Artemis program that are still in formative and testing phases. The second will be the Space Operations Mission Directorate, which will handle more routine, operational programs like the International Space Station and the Commercial Crew Program. Agency officials say categorizing programs based on levels of development rather than areas of expertise will help refine NASA’s focus.
The organizational shakeup was a “strong” recommendation from President Biden’s transition team, Nelson told reporters during a press conference on the changes. One major advantage of the change involves NASA’s budgeting process, which is often fraught with complexity and frequently faces pushback from members of Congress who complain NASA doesn’t provide enough clarity on its exploration plans. With the broad human exploration program now split in two, complex and sometimes ambiguous programs won’t be as intermixed with NASA’s more routine programs. And the two bodies will have separate leaders rather than a single official whose workload has seen steep growth in recent years.
“Two heads are better than one,” Kathy Lueders, the current head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said during a town hall in Washington, DC, with the agency’s workforce on Tuesday. Lueders, who previously led NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, will move from her post as human spaceflight chief to helm the Space Operations Mission Directorate. Jim Free, a former deputy associate administrator who held senior roles in NASA’s Orion capsule program, will lead the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate.
But not everyone in the space industry will be happy with the change. Lueders, seen by many as a champion for commercial space because of her experience leading the Commercial Crew Program during its formative years, won’t be as involved in the agency’s biggest development programs like Artemis anymore. Critics of the reorganization are also likely to see it as more red tape and a new burden of coordination between the two offices that will have to stay in touch on related space programs.
“We’re actually not adding a whole new layer of people,” NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy told reporters after the town hall, addressing critiques of the move. “There are very few additional positions that will be required... the challenges that we have in coordinating across organizations is exactly the same as it is today.”
“Both of these people are extremely qualified,” Nelson told reporters. “It was obvious, it was common sense, that Kathy’s success should continue in the space operations mission directorate.” Employing a southern colloquialism, he added his decision to pick Lueders and Free for the roles “was as easy of a decision as falling off a log.”
Studies conducted by NASA’s senior leadership under the Trump administration, when Nelson’s predecessor Jim Bridenstine was leading NASA, recommended a similar idea: NASA should spin-off elements related to its ambitious Artemis program into a separate directorate with its own leadership, giving it the focus and resources it’d need to execute an ambitious timeline of putting astronauts on the Moon by 2024. That advice was shelved at the time, current and former officials say, partially because it subtracted resources from other directorates, which frustrated members of Congress.
But now, growing activity in the commercial space arena and the increasing cadence of human space travel, as SpaceX’s recent all-civilian mission to orbit last week showed, warrant changes to how NASA has managed its biggest human spaceflight programs for nearly a decade, NASA’s senior leadership say.
“The last decade has seen extraordinary change and growth,” Melroy said at the town hall. “The impact that NASA has had 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 over-budget Space Launch System, which is poised 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, no longer just one monolithic program. How are we going to manage this huge change in scope?’”
NASA’s Artemis program includes 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 surface of the Moon by 2024 (that will probably get delayed). A new space station called Gateway that will orbit the Moon is in the works by a team of international partners. Lockheed Martin is building NASA’s Orion crew capsule to help astronauts get to the Moon. NASA’s Space Launch System, a behemoth rocket largely managed by Boeing, has been under construction for more than a decade to launch the Orion capsule to Gateway, where SpaceX’s Starship will pick up astronauts and land on the lunar surface. Artemis is a multibillion-dollar fandango, and until today, all of it sat next to other routine programs like the ISS, a $100 billion orbital research post that has housed rotating crews of international astronauts for over 20 years.
“This approach allows one mission directorate to operate in space, while the other builds space systems,” Melroy said.