Kathy Leuders, head of NASA’s newly minted Space Operations Mission Directorate, joined us at TC Sessions: Space last week for a chat about the future of the agency and what she is looking forward to — and dreading — in the next decade of missions.
In the first place Leuders explained the reasoning behind NASA’s decision in September to split the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in two.
“30 years ago it was really, in the human exploration area, it was Shuttle, and then it was Shuttle and station… Now we’ve added Commercial Crew, [Lunar] Gateway, you know, HLS [Human Landing System], I mean, we’re mushrooming!” she explained.
This was putting too much pressure on the existing structure and it was amicably decided to split off, essentially, the development and planning side from operations. Leuders said she was pleased to be put in charge of the latter.
“The best thing is I got to have, you know, the missions! I got to have the execution,” she said. “I’ve spent probably about 15 years doing development. But my favorite part was when we started flying. So guess what — I’m firmly in the flying division. So I’m very, very happy to be there. I get to do all the launches and operations and I love it.”
While the big launches and landings tend to hog all the glory, Artemis and its related lunar missions are more diverse and wide-ranging than that. I asked what pieces of the puzzle may not be getting enough attention.
“It’s the infrastructure pieces that people don’t talk about,” she replied. “You know, we’re gonna need power on the moon. We’re going to need to be able to move cargo around on the moon. We’re going to need to be able to have communication and additional relays on the moon. We tend to not think of roads and power lines as sexy things. But this is infrastructure that, if you ever run a business, you need those kinds of things to be able to operate. Try to run a business without power — try to run a business without comms.”
But not all of her duties will be pleasant. She was among those who saw the ISS go up, and she will be there when it comes down — or at least, in the near term, is decommissioned.
“Oh gosh… I mean, when I moved to JSC [Johnson Space Center], it was to go work on an International Space Station. And so I actually was one of the lucky people that came onto the space station program at [mission] 2A. Been on the job two weeks and I got to be at the launch, and there were people there that invested 10 years of their life and were there crying. And so I will be crying when we have to deorbit the Space Station,” she said. “But it was also very painful for us to, you know, retire the Shuttle. Part of the things we’ve got to recognize is when’s the right time, right?
“And it’s the right time, because we really need to go off and we need to focus on living and working around the moon… and wherever other crazy place that NASA people dream up to be able to go to.”
TC+ members can watch the full panel at the top of this post.