HAMBURG, Germany — The head of NASA exploration programs will succeed a former astronaut as the agency’s third-highest official.

NASA announced Nov. 15 that Jim Free, currently the associate administrator for exploration systems development, will take over as associate administrator at the end of the year. He will replace Bob Cabana, who announced Nov. 13 he will retire from the agency.

The position of associate administrator is the third highest in the agency, behind Administrator Bill Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, and is the highest civil service post at the agency. The associate administrator serves as a senior adviser to the administrator and deputy administrator and oversees the leaders of the agency’s mission directorates and field centers.

“Pam, Bob and I strongly believe that his wealth of experience and expertise will bring exceptional guidance and perspective to our leadership team in his new role as associate administrator, enhancing our collective efforts toward achieving bold goals for the benefit of all humanity,” Nelson said of Free in a statement.

Free rejoined NASA in 2021 when the agency created the position of associate administrator for exploration systems development by splitting the former Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two directorates, one focused on exploration and the other space operations, primarily the International Space Station. He had been in the private sector for several years after a NASA career that included being director of the Glenn Research Center.

Cabana took the position of associate administrator in mid-2021 after the retirement of Steve Jurczyk. Cabana had spent more than a decade as director of the Kennedy Space Center, overseeing its transition from a facility focused primarily on the space shuttle to a “multi-user spaceport” that hosts both NASA and commercial launch activities.

Cabana joined NASA as an astronaut in 1985. He flew on four shuttle missions, including commanding the STS-88 mission in December 1998 that attached the first American ISS module, Unity. He later became deputy director of the Johnson Space Center and director of the Stennis Space Center before going to KSC.

“Leading the exceptional people at NASA who explore the universe for the benefit of humanity has been a great honor,” Cabana said in a statement about his retirement. “From flying in space to guiding teams across the agency in achieving NASA’s mission, I am grateful for an incredible career at NASA and in the space industry, and thankful for all the enriching friendships made throughout this journey.”

Succeeding Free as associate administrator for exploration systems development will be his deputy, Catherine Koerner. She had been in that position since last March after serving as program manager for the Orion spacecraft for a year and a half.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...