New NASA human spaceflight leader acknowledges challenge of 2024 lunar landing

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Updated June 19 with NASA statement.

WASHINGTON — The new head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs says she’s excited by the opportunity to lead efforts to return astronauts to the moon, but cautioned she could not guarantee that could be accomplished by the end of 2024.

In a June 18 call with reporters, her first since being named associate administrator for human exploration and operations (HEO) June 12, Kathy Lueders said she was “very grateful” for the opportunity to lead the directorate responsible for NASA’s exploration programs, the International Space Station, and commercial crew, the program she managed for several years before being tapped as associate administrator.

“What an exciting time in HEO right now,” she said, citing activities ranging from the ongoing Demo-2 commercial crew mission at the ISS to preparations for the Artemis-1 SLS/Orion launch and work on lunar landers and other systems needed to land humans on the moon. “It’s just a tremendous, amazing time for me to be able to now work missions across this amazing mission directorate.”

The highest profile activity in that mission directorate is the Artemis program, with the goal established by the White House last year to land humans on the moon by the end of 2024. Lueders said that goal is challenging, but said she could not guarantee it can be achieved.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said when asked if NASA will meet that deadline. “We’re going to try. Sometimes it’s the trying that gets us closer to the goals than the not-trying. You’ve got to start. It takes one step at a time.”

“I think it’s very important to have an aggressive goal,” she said, recalling the experience from the commercial crew program she managed. “It gets the team focused on the importance of the mission.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, also on the call, said a yes-or-no answer to achieving the 2024 deadline wasn’t appropriate. “Everything is a range of probabilities,” he said. “What we’ve done with hiring Kathy Lueders to be the head of human exploration is we’ve increased the probability of success.”

In a June 19 statement, Lueders clarified her views on the 2024 goal. “I’m excited to lead NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations directorate and I’m committed to our bold goal of sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program,” she said. “Aggressive goals are essential to mission success. We are moving as quickly and safely as possible to return to the Moon in four years and establish sustainable exploration later this decade to prepare us for future exploration of Mars.”

Lueders didn’t announce any specific plans for changes to the programs in her portfolio, or timelines for milestones like setting a new formal launch date for Artemis-1, which has now slipped likely to late 2021. “She’s been focused on commercial crew and now she’s been four days thinking, ‘Okay, what about the moon,’” Bridenstine said. “We’re going to give her time to do what she needs to do, to learn what she needs to learn, and then we’re going to give her the authority to make the decisions necessary to make it a successful program.”

That also includes, Bridenstine said, pausing a reorganization of the mission directorate that her predecessor, Doug Loverro, started. “We put that on pause,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that Kathy Lueders had an opportunity to take the job, work within that role, get to know the people, get to know the processes, and then let her make her own determination on how she wants to organize it.”

While Lueders is getting up to speed on some parts of the HEO portfolio, she did provide an update on the ongoing Demo-2 commercial crew mission. “Crew Dragon has been doing great,” she said. The spacecraft has been in a “quiescent” state for most of its time at the station since docking May 31, except for weekly checks of its systems. “It’s been doing so wonderfully, people forget it’s the maiden voyage for this Crew Dragon, and so far she’s been doing great.”

Lueders said the ISS crew has been putting Crew Dragon “through its paces” with other tests. One upcoming test, she said, will be to have four people inside the spacecraft to see how well they can function.

She said current plans still call for the spacecraft, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, to leave the station in early August. That date will depend on both the performance of the Crew Dragon on the ISS as well as the spacecraft SpaceX is completing for the next mission, Crew-1, scheduled for launch no earlier than Aug. 30.

“We’ve got to continue to monitor progress and make sure we’re wisely using Doug and Bob as best we can to continue to provide additional safety and maintenance of the International Space Station,” she said.

Lueders is the first woman to lead NASA’s human spaceflight program, and she noted that the briefing took place on the 37th anniversary of the launch of Sally Ride as the first American woman in space. “When Jim asked me if I would take this role, I didn’t really think about being first,” she said.

“It’s been amazing to me over the last few days seeing all the tweets, Snapchats, Instagrams, all the notes from all the girls out there,” she said. “That really helps me realize what the power of my being first means to them.”