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NASA's Kathy Lueders Oversees a New Era of Human Spaceflight

ISS,20th Anniversary,Kathy Lueders
Alex Lin
Salvatore La Rosa
November 12, 20202:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

As 2020 draws to a close, NASA celebrates 20 years of continuous human presence in space and paves a new path forward.


This year brought a litany of historic milestones for the space industry — in spite of an ongoing pandemic. The success of Demo-2, a test launch, only confirmed what most were already aware of — commercial space is viable, and it’s here to stay. NASA will now continue to prove this as the space agency is poised for an official crew rotation mission, Crew-1, aboard SpaceX's Dragon.

On Saturday, November 14th, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi will embark on a months-long expedition, marking the start of the Commercial Crew Program’s first rotation to the space station. The vehicle launching the mission has been named Resilience and NASA has officially certified SpaceX’s commercial spacecraft system for human transportation — a major step forward in opening space access.

To get a clearer picture of these critical milestones in getting more humans to low-Earth orbit, Supercluster sat down with Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Associate Administrator of Human Explorations and Operations, to hear how her teams have spent years gearing up for the commercial crew missions and what Saturday's launch means for the future of human spaceflight. 

Supercluster: Taking on your new role as the leader of HEO, what was your first major task?

When I took my new role, we were in the middle of a very important mission, NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight, and we were about to launch a new mission to Mars with Perseverance. Ensuring we safely returned our space dads Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley and that our Mars mission launched successfully on its journey to the Red Planet were my first two major tasks. Luckily, NASA has great people on every mission, and the teams were hard at work to help us ensure success.

Supercluster: When it comes to getting crews to the space station and back home safely, what's the most critical aspect of preparation?

With the Commercial Crew Program, we changed the way NASA manages the safety of our crews going to the space station. We had to learn how to assess other people’s designs in relation to our requirements, working together to make sure the design is acceptable and the systems are safe. We’ve been working on that now for more than a decade. Our teams have grown a lot in understanding how to understand and apply our requirements to assess the safety of different designs. It teaches you to really understand what you’re trying to do. 

Supercluster: Over the course of the past few years, you’ve watched SpaceX go from a cargo delivery company to a human spaceflight company. What did NASA see in SpaceX that helped form that trusting relationship? What makes a successful spaceflight company?

We made a point with both commercial cargo resupply with Northrop Grumman and SpaceX and commercial crew with Boeing and SpaceX to call them “partners.” When you work as a team, it’s a stronger relationship. We are part of their team, and they are part of our team; we are not just coming in at the end to do the fact-checking. We see our partners as equals; we don’t just tell them what to do. We have to recognize their expertise and skill. Both sides benefit, and the relationship holds things together when things get rough.

Supercluster: Let’s talk about DM-2. What did NASA learn from this flight and what were the most important adjustments for Crew-1?

We had an incredible mission with Demo-2 and are very happy with that test flight. This has been a dream of ours to have commercial crew rotation seats up on the station, and we’re looking forward to many more to come. We did learn a couple of things and have some work we identified in a couple of different areas: redesign of a small area of the thermal protection system around the trunk attachments, modifications to the ventilation system on the nosecone of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, and design adjustment for measuring the barometric pressure used for parachute deployment. The teams also are coordinating with the U.S. Coast Guard to ensure crew safety upon splashdown, including extra ships and air assets to patrol the “keep out” zone to mitigate safety concerns for boaters approaching the landing area.

Supercluster: Will there be any more official testing as a follow-up to the overall test that was DM-2?

Just as we did with each space shuttle mission, with each commercial crew mission, we will continue to conduct a flight readiness review, which will give us the opportunity to address anything that comes up between missions, the knowledge we’ll continue to gain as we fly more, and any adjustments we need to make as a result. Certification isn’t the end; it’s the beginning of learning how to really fly on a regular basis.

Supercluster: COVID-19 has caused most of the world to take time to pause and adapt to the challenges a worldwide pandemic. Still, human spaceflight and space exploration continues on. What steps have you and your team been taking to navigate the obstacles of COVID-19?

The safety of our crews and our astronauts in space is our priority. And the safety of the crews on the space station, and ensuring regular crew rotations and the ability to continue to operate the incredible asset we have in the International Space station is what makes these missions essential. We will be celebrating 20 years of uninterrupted human presence in space; that’s incredible! Our crews for these missions and all the people supporting them are taking precautions to work as safely as possible and follow CDC guidelines to ensure we keep everyone safe and can continue this essential work.

Supercluster: Obviously it’s important that NASA and the American taxpayer have two carriers for transportation services to the ISS. Can you give us an update on where Boeing is in getting Starliner to the ISS? What was the major lesson learned by NASA with Starliner’s first mission?

Lessons learned from the Starliner’s first uncrewed flight test are being shared across the human spaceflight community to strengthen the industry as a whole. It was important to us that we specifically review the organizational factors within NASA and Boeing that could have contributed to the flight test anomalies. Boeing has completed more than 75% of the 80 proposed actions, and teams from Boeing are well into final assembly of the crew and service modules that will fly OFT-2 to the space station. OFT-2 will fly a new, reusable Starliner crew module providing an additional on-orbit experience for the operational teams prior to flying missions with astronauts. Recent progress is focused on the NASA docking system re-entry cover, which was added to the design for additional protection of the system. 

Supercluster: Space seems to be opening up more quickly than expected, at least in Hollywood. How do you feel about Tom Cruise and Director Doug Liman heading to the ISS, and what tip would you give them before their mission?

Enabling private astronaut missions is one way we are working toward our goal of a sustainable economy in low-Earth orbit. We know that tourism is going to be a critical part of the market for a low-Earth orbit economy. Going to space changes the way people view Earth. The more people who can have that experience, the better. Private astronauts will think of new things we can do in space and new ways to do them, and that will further drive demand and interest for that market. For all future private astronauts, my advice would be to pay very close attention in your training so you truly can make the most of your time aboard our magnificent International Space Station. 

Supercluster: There’s always talk that our beloved ISS won’t be around forever. What will replace it?

You’re right; the space station won’t be around forever, which is why we are working very hard to ensure we can transition to new commercially built free-flying space stations in low-Earth orbit. We will be watching the maturity of commercial destinations very closely as we have identified how we expect to continue to need to be a customer of those platforms as well.

Supercluster: After humans begin flying to space more regularly, more startups will begin to emerge that will try and do so as well. What is your first and most important piece of advice for those enterprising folks?

It’s important to know that you’re going to have problems. I don’t know any development team that doesn’t. Team dynamics are important all the time, and you have to monitor how the teams are working together. Healthy tension is good, but unhealthy tension is what you need to watch and solve for as quickly as possible.

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Alex Lin
Salvatore La Rosa
November 12, 20202:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)