WASHINGTON — Kathy Lueders, the NASA official who oversees the International Space Station and commercial cargo and crew programs, will retire from the agency at the end of April and be succeeded by her deputy.

NASA announced March 27 that Lueders would retire after more than three decades at the agency, most recently as associate administrator for space operations. Ken Bowersox, who is deputy associate administrator for space operations, will take over that post effective May 1.

Lueders had worked for more than two decades on the shuttle and ISS programs when she became manager of the commercial crew program in 2013 as the agency was preparing to select companies to develop the vehicles that would transport astronauts to and from the station. She remained in the role through the successful launch of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, in May 2020.

In June 2020, NASA named Lueders as its next associate administrator for human exploration and operations, responsible for all NASA human spaceflight efforts, including the Artemis lunar exploration campaign. She took the job less than a month after Doug Loverro resigned from the agency amid claims he violated procurement regulations during the selection process for a first round of Human Landing System awards.

She held that position until September 2021, when NASA split the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) into two. Lueders retained the space operations part of it, overseeing the ISS, commercial cargo and crew programs, and ancillary efforts like space communications and navigation. The Space Operations Mission Directorate is also home to NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations program to foster development of commercial space stations to succeed the ISS.

NASA moved the exploration-related programs into a new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, led by Jim Free, a former director of the Glenn Research Center. The various programs associated with Artemis, as well as advanced planning for eventual human missions to Mars, are in that directorate.

“Kathy is a tremendous public servant and a trailblazer, not only serving as the first woman to head space operations for NASA and the first woman to manage our human spaceflight program, but also championing a new way of doing business in low Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement announcing her retirement. “The public-private commercial model Kathy and her team helped pioneer will return humanity to the Moon and prepare us for our next giant leap: the first crewed missions to Mars.”

Others outside the agency praised her work. “I have been impressed by her deep technical knowledge throughout, her strong decision making, and her kindness and support as a friend,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, who stepped down as associate administrator for science at NASA at the end of 2022. Without her, he added, “I actually doubt there would be a Commercial Crew program, which has changed how we go to space, and will surely result in much science impact.”

“She was the perfect NASA leader at the right time,” said Abhi Tripathi, a former mission director at SpaceX who is currently director of mission operations at the University of California Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. “It’s hard to imagine how different SpaceX’s trajectory would have been without her as its main interface.”

Bowersox, who will take over for Lueders on May 1, has been deputy associate administrator for space operations and, before that, human exploration and operations for several years. He served as acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations after the resignation of Loverro in 2020 and for several months in 2019 when NASA reassigned Bill Gerstenmaier, longtime associate administrator for human exploration and operations, to a special adviser position.

Bowersox is a former naval aviator and astronaut who flew four shuttle missions from 1992 to 1997 and a long-duration ISS mission, launching on a shuttle in 2002 and returning on a Soyuz in 2003 after the Columbia accident grounded the shuttle program. He was vice president of astronaut safety and mission assurance at SpaceX from 2009 to 2011 and later served as chair of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee before returning to NASA.

“Ken has been instrumental to advancing NASA’s goals and missions in low Earth orbit and beyond, and I know Space Operations will be in good hands under his leadership,” Nelson said in a statement.

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...