Longtime NASA official calls it a career

The Space Hour spoke with outgoing associate administrator of NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate, Kathryn Leuders.

At the end of April, a long time NASA official will be stepping down from a prominent posting. Kathryn Lueders will be retiring from the agency after 31 years. Her current position of associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate obviously has a big role to play in the space agency’s future plans, which is why her successor has already been named. I had the chance to discuss that with her, but we started by getting to know a little bit about her past and the road she took to get where she is today.

Interview transcript:

Kathryn Lueders So I made my way through a couple of different naps centers starting out at White Sands, which is actually a kind of a test facility in support of Johnson Space Center. I got to work fixing hardware on the shuttle program and then moved into the station program, did various positions there. My last one thing I got to do there was to actually bring cargo on commercial vehicles back to, and transporting cargo to the [International Space Station (ISS)]. And then, move to program manager for the Commercial Crew program. From there, I got the opportunity to actually be a overall of human spaceflight for about a year and a half, and then the job was really big. So we ended up moving into an exploration development organization and a space ops organization. And I don’t know about you, but operating in space is one of the funest things. And so, I am now overseeing really all the operations that are currently in [Low-Earth Orbit (LEO)], supporting also launch services, supporting our major communication networks, all the crew support capabilities that ensure that we’ve got crews ready to go for both our Artemis missions and our ongoing ISS missions. And so I’ll tell you, I feel like this is the best job in the agency right now. We have tons of missions that occur every year and we get to do them.

Eric White Yeah, I was going to say you it sounds like you were busy and almost busier over the last five years, especially. Could you talk a little bit about the uptick in talking with folks in this industry? The fact that there’s almost like a launch monthly that they’re all paying attention to is just something that has probably changed for you, has it not?

Kathryn Lueders I think really starting, when we were doing just the cargo vehicles to the International Space Station, we typically had, even at that time between three to five cargo vehicles providing cargo up and then you start. But since 2020, we started to add then two commercial crew vehicles going to the [U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS)] side of the space station. And then, we had the commercial missions that are crewed, missions that are also going up. So what’s really great is the International Space Station right now is one of the busiest places that we have, providing science research crew opportunities to not only our government agencies, but also access to research facilities in the U.S. and around the world, and also businesses in and around the world. We have 24 commercial facilities on station now that are enabling our industry partners to really figure out how to do business in space, and that’s going to be very critical for us going forward, because after shuttle station retirement in 2030 and we’re looking to transition to actually buying low-Earth orbit services on commercial destinations. So it’s a very critical time for us to continue to learn how to operate in space, so that when we’re buying capabilities in the future, we have people that have practiced in space and can actually continue to provide those capabilities not only to us, but our other agency partners and also to other industry partners that are out there. It’s an opportunity for the U/S. to continue to lead in low-Earth.

Eric White You provided a perfect segue way for me for my next question. Current NASA’s administrator, Bill Nelson, commemorated you when you announced your retirement for really championing the public private commercial partnerships that are there now for low-Earth orbit. Can you talk a little bit about what those early days were like in bringing in more commercial partners? What were some of the challenges? But also what were some of the, you just mentioned some of the pros to having more commercial partners in your missions. Can you just describe that a little bit for me and how that came about?

Kathryn Lueders When we first began to really look at the late 2000, looking at the challenge of how we’re going to maintain science and research capabilities on the International Space Station after shuttle retirement, because shuttle had been our big workhorse, carrying out payloads for us. And so, we had to then envision, how do we fill that gap? And so that was really when, and I’ll say at the time, this was a bit of a Hail Mary pass. I use that term, because we didn’t have established cargo capabilities at the time. And what’s great about the way we went out with a contract was we really tried to get as close to a commercial contract as possible, understanding that you still had to do it under the [Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)], because we’re a government agency. But that enabled the companies to use their ingenuity to be able to come up with the solution for us to provide cargo. And we had to accept some risk with that. We had both cargo providers actually failed a mission within the first three or four years. But when you look at the hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo that we’ve gotten up over the last 14 years, and the fact that particular change enabled us to, for the first time, get cargo returned from the International Space Station. We weren’t able to do that with government capabilities that we had, international capabilities that we had, and also powered cargo up and down, which was also a capability that we were not able to get with our international government partners. And so, I’ll say, it’s a real credit to the U.S. industry that they were able to step up. And I’m very proud that the agency also was able to stand by them as they work through failures and then be able to recover, and both recovered within a year. And we’re flying cargo back to the International Space Station after those failures. And so real credit to the U.S. industry. And honestly, we would not have the station we had today if they weren’t able to do that. Obviously, moving into crew, in the same way we try to keep our contract instrument as flexible as possible to enable their capability. I’m very proud of the fact that the way we did the contract, even though we did a fixed price contract, both contracts that we have with Boeing and SpaceX, have less than 30 changes on those contracts. We just are finishing up our 24th change on a Boeing contract after having a contract with Boeing for seven years. There’s an efficiency there from a contracting perspective and management perspective with these types of industry contracts and being very thoughtful about how you do the contract that enables them to have their innovation, but at the same time, also brings the cost of that capability down to us. It takes a lot of work on both sides to be able to do this right.

Eric White Yeah. What do you make of the exponential growth in the U.S. space industry itself? And has your Rolodex grown with that exponential growth as it coincided with how many contacts you have now in the industry?

Kathryn Lueders Well, I think, it was just this one change in how we bought the capability that enabled companies to be able to use that capability to create opportunities for other companies. We just really changed how we were getting something that we needed. And what we did from a government perspective was actually allowed the companies to own the IP. Typically, we would have owned all the intellectual property ourselves. We would have kept it all. Then it would have only been able to be provided to just NASA. We don’t typically provide them that capability to the Air Force or Space Force or other folks, so is the fact that we did these as these commercial contracts and allowed them to actually provide a service, but also be able to team with other partners that created an amplification benefit and allowed other companies to be able to recognize that they could partner and create industries with these emerging companies, and allowed each of the companies that we contracted with for services to create opportunities for themselves and for other people. And so, there are tons of rideshares that go up on every single cargo vehicle going up that enable research university partnerships, other industry partnerships. Just because we bought the ride and other people are able to get incremental benefit off of that, that is huge. We are still getting a great price on our services, but we said, Ok, we’re ok with you getting benefit out of it. And that’s caused this ripple effect through industry, which is really to me driven people seeing opportunities. And where before, if we would have bought our capabilities in the traditional way, it would have been more of a dead end.

Eric White Your replacement, Ken Bowersox, has been announced already upon your retirement. What notes are you leaving for him on your way out?

Kathryn Lueders Well, I will tell you, when I was starting to think about retiring, one of the requests I had was that, Ken take over. Because there’s nothing that makes you feel better than to know that you’re a replacement for your team, and for me, it’s always this team will always be my team, is going to have such a great leader taking over. It’s what helps me sleep at night. So Ken’s got a ton of experience. I worked with Ken in different roles in the shuttle program. I actually worked with them when he was working for Space X. He and I were both there at the very beginning of the cargo work, and I’d worked with him when it was there at the time. And I’d obviously interacted with him when he was in his [Human Exploration and Operations (HEO)] role. And then over the last multiple years, he’s been a stalwart leader, obviously supporting Mr. Gerstenmaier and before Mr. Loverro, and then honestly was there for me when I came in as [Human Exploration and Operations Associate Administrator (HEO AA)]. So I know that I’m leaving this great mission directorate in great hands. And I know that the leadership in this mission directorate is going to be doing even more with the platforms we have, and coming up with even more innovations that are going to be pushing not only this agency forward, but I feel like this nation forward and providing benefits to our international partners and the world with what we’re doing.

Eric White And just to finish up here, you were the first woman to hold this role at NASA. NASA just announced that the first woman ever will be visiting the moon. Can you just speak a little bit more about the footprint that your legacy may leave on an agency that, for a long time neglected for whatever reason, the insight and the knowledge that female officials and astronauts can provide?

Kathryn Lueders I think when you do these jobs, you don’t really realize your impact. And I tell the story, people are getting tired of hearing it. But it was after I was announced as the HEO AA, I just received, and I really appreciate this outpouring of notes that I received from all around the world. And one in particular, really touch my heart. And it was from a nine-year-old-girl in India who said, Because you are in that role, I see that I can do that. And so I really feel like each one of us that are in our roles, we’re all recognize that, when you’re the first, you don’t want to be the last. And I’m very happy to see across the board at NASA now. Nicky Fox is the Science Mission Directorate AA, we’ve got key leadership with Pam Milroy continuing the deputy AA. It be great to have a first woman administrator, NASA administrator at some point, and I’m sure we’ll have one future. But I just really appreciate all those women that reached out to me and said that. And what I do is I challenge them all to make sure that they, at some point, will be a first in something. And that they need to ensure that they’re reaching out and bringing forward more of us as we move forward. I really appreciate the opportunity that NASA has given me to do this, and I challenge everyone out there that’s been potentially inspired by me to bring along somebody else.

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