Meet the woman leading NASA’s human spaceflight programme

21 Apr 2021

Kathryn Lueders. Image: NASA

Kathryn Lueders may be first woman to serve as the chief of human spaceflight at NASA but here she talks about why the space agency is no longer ‘an all boys’ club’.

It’s a big week at NASA. While space travel is, by definition, pretty out of this world, this week it has been taken to new heights – quite literally.

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity made history by becoming the first ever aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

As if that wasn’t enough, the space agency has also given SpaceX the official go-ahead for the launch of its next crew mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday (23 April). This will include the use of a recycled SpaceX rocket and capsule for the first time, in a bid to make space travel more sustainable and cost effective.

With so much innovation going on, it’s safe to say that Kathryn Lueders has one of the most exciting jobs in the world (and, arguably, outside the world).

Lueders heads up NASA’s human spaceflight programme as the associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate.

‘Nearly everything we use on Earth has been touched by space in some way’

Prior to her appointment to the role, she managed NASA’s commercial crew programme, directing the agency’s efforts to send astronauts to space on private spacecraft.

She told that the launch of the Mars helicopter earlier this week was one of the most exciting events for her. “[It’s] a major first that will teach us a lot.”

While Lueders is the first woman to lead the human spaceflight programme, she said that she didn’t immediately realise this was the case.

“When I did, I thought about all the teams I’d worked on before. I’ve been so privileged to work with a number of brilliant engineers and managers, many of whom were women, but most of whom were men. It didn’t make those teams any less cohesive or collegial. But diverse teams bring diverse ideas,” she said.

“One thing I think a lot about is how to grow more female engineers, scientists, technology experts and innovators that can inform a broad spectrum of work. We need for others to see themselves in these kinds of roles, so that they realise they can do it. I think that’s very, very important for not only for girls but for all groups of people.”

Leading the human spaceflight programme

As the associate administrator of NASA human spaceflight, Lueders manages the full portfolio for operations and capabilities that enable the crewed exploration of space.

This includes everything astronauts need to get them to and from space, ensuring they’re protected and sustained along the way and enabling them to complete their mission. The core of the portfolio includes the work done on the ISS, the commercial crew programme and the Artemis programme, which aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and bring the first woman to the moon.

Last month, the space agency hit a critical milestone ahead of the Artemis I mission, which is scheduled for later this year, when it successfully completed a hot fire test.

Even with just a brief overview from Lueders, the technology and research involved for these missions is truly mind-boggling.

“We provide launch services support that enables science and technology missions in all parts of the solar system, including Mars. Our space communications and navigation capabilities serve as our eyes and ears in space and as a vital communications link to every spacecraft, whether robotic or crewed,” she explained.

“Human research capabilities inform the human experience of active and future missions, researching and protecting crew health. And development of a commercial market in low Earth orbit is steadily gaining speed and will be a great catalyst for stimulating our Earth and a space economy.”

Lueders also said the very nature of launching into space presents challenges as it comprises a delicate balance of technical components, systems and very precise scheduling.

However, one challenge she was surprised to encounter was how complex and far-reaching NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate is.

“There is a real culture shift that happens during a transition like that and a lot of people are immediately impacted,” she said.

“Honing in on specific areas that need to be evaluated, improved or cut altogether is one aspect. Another is evaluating the workforce, infrastructure requirements and, broadly, where you want the organisation to go next. It’s an enormous responsibility, and one that I am honoured and humbled to serve.”

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist

While there is so much exciting innovation to know about within the walls of NASA, there are still some misconceptions about working there. Lueders said one of them is the idea that someone has to be a rocket scientist to work with the space agency.

“It’s a general misnomer that NASA only employs those in technical and scientific fields. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.

“Nearly every kind of skillset is represented at NASA, and all of those skillsets help us to meet our objectives. We need to make sure that bright minds are assured that our agency reflects the nature of our changing field, of our changing world, requiring diverse thought, background and experience that pushes us forward.”

She also said the idea that NASA is an ‘all boys’ club’ is an outdated misconception. “That may have been true in the early days, but let me tell you: that has changed. Yes, I am the first woman to serve as the chief of human spaceflight, and what an honour it is,” she said.

“We have a female director of the launch control centre, who will call ‘Go for launch’ on the first flight of Artemis I scheduled for later this year. Our lead flight director is a woman. Three of the four divisions in the Science Mission Directorate are led by women. So, we have a lot of women in leadership positions, but also at managerial levels and on support teams throughout the agency.”

Lueders said she sees space exploration as a team sport with a lot of players on the field, meaning she feels like she gets to be one of the coaches.

I am really excited to continue executing and delivering missions that the world wants to see and continue delivering value to our nation and world through innovation,” she said.

“Nearly everything we use on Earth – whether it be a technology, a product, a method – has been touched by space in some way. Just as so much of what we do on Earth informs how we live and work in space. It all comes full circle.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic