Kathy Lueders ’81, NASA’s head of human spaceflight, talks to Matt Wilce about her career, working with commercial partners and putting the first woman on the moon.
“Living in space is really hard!” As the woman tasked with putting American “boots on the moon” for the first time in half a century, Kathy Lueders ’81 should know. With its Artemis program, NASA aims to land the first woman and the 13th man on the Moon by 2024, and with her appointment as associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, Lueders is leading the next generation of human spaceflight. A return to the moon is the first stage in their plan before NASA takes its next giant leap and sends astronauts to Mars. So how did the daughter of a Lutheran minister who spent her childhood in Japan, end up coordinating humanity’s quest to visit other planets?
The Space Shuttle was an icon of the eighties and America’s supremacy in the Space Race. The first reusable spacecraft capable of taking astronauts beyond the atmosphere and returning to Earth, the Shuttle was the cornerstone of NASA’s human spaceflight program for three decades, flying a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. The Space Shuttle launched and recovered satellites, delivered the payloads used to build the International Space Station (ISS), pointed the Hubble Space Telescope to look out at the edges of the universe, and made astronaut and cargo transit routine jobs. It put Steve Smith ’77 into space four times (see Fall 2011 Ambassador) and took former ASIJ faculty member Dan Tani (FF ’16–’18) to the ISS on Expedition 16. The Shuttle program also provided two key moments in Lueders career and the catalyst for her current role.
Back in 1992, Lueders took her first job at NASA joining the propulsion lab at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico to work on the Shuttle program. “At the time they were just trying to figure out how to start repairing the engines off of the shuttle orbiters in house—orbiters are the part of the Shuttle that returns and flies that kind of look like a big airplane,” she says. “I really lucked out because I came in brand new and they at the time didn’t understand anything about the kinds of processes that needed to be in place to be able to process flight hardware. And so I started off, and ended up, being the person that knew how to process flight hardware.” This would lead to Lueders becoming the depot manager of the Space Shuttle Program Orbital Maneuvering System and Reaction Control Systems, overseeing the repair of engines and other components that were exposed to hypergols, the toxic propellants that fueled the Shuttle. Lueders developed this new capability for NASA and her team processed the hardware on all the orbiters. “I would just go look at the orbiters and I knew all the numbers, all of the serial numbers that I’ve worked on... it was a very fun job for me and I worked on lots of flight hardware. I got to go to the Cape and got to go up on the elevator and go see my babies.”
While working at White Sands, Lueders completed degrees in Industrial Engineering at the University of New Mexico, getting her Bachelor of Science in 1993 and her Master’s in 1999. Lueders had already graduated college with a BA in finance and initially begun a career in another industry. Her college roommate was a mechanical engineer and Lueders was intrigued by the kind of problems she was working on and thought she’d like to try to solve them herself. Nothing came of it at the time as “missionary kids don’t have a lot of money, you know. Your main goal is graduating and getting out with your student loans as minimized as possible,” she quips. Marriage and children came along and it wasn’t until later that Lueders explored engineering as a career.
With two young children it might have seemed crazy to some, but she thought “you only get one shot to go do something and go solve the problems that you really want to go solve.” Her engineering education gave her “a new toolbox” and she discovered that her finance degree was relevant at NASA too. “It’s been a nice mix having that systems engineering background and the finance background—it’s made me a better program manager,” she says.
On July 21, 2011, mission STS-135 and the Space Shuttle program came to an end when the Atlantis orbiter touched down at the Kennedy Space Center. The final Shuttle mission marked the end of an era and left the United States without the means to put their own astronauts into space for the first time since the 1960s. From here on, NASA would be hitching a ride for its crew and cargo on someone else’s rocket. For Lueders this meant a move to the International Space Station Program where she served as transportation integration manager, leading commercial cargo resupply services to the space station. She also became responsible for oversight of spacecraft from NASA’s international partners visiting the space station. These included the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, the H-II Transfer Vehicle built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Russian space agency Roscosmos’ Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. “When we started work on the International Space Station program, we began to bring on new countries—JAXA hadn’t built a human space platform before, you know. Them building the HGV and the H2 was a new process—for us, too,” she says.
Building and operating the ISS was integral to NASA’s understanding of how to live in space and the bridge to their current goals to return to the moon and send humans deeper into space than ever before. “When we first started going to the space station, people sometimes would go, why don’t you just go all the way to Mars?” Lueders says. “And you’re like, well, hang on a second. We learned a lot. People don’t realize that living in space is really hard. And, you know, there’s all these things that you learn in space. When you’re going to a different environment, you will learn because everything kind of operates differently,” she adds. “We’ve been out on the space station for 20 years—every day, every minute, you know, living and working in space. And what we’ve learned from doing that is how to psychologically live in space, but also how to manage things and be able to do things like normal maintenance and live that way.”
Extrapolating this experience and building on it is the next step in the Artemis program. “The biggest engineering challenge is not knowing that environment and still being able to build your hardware, go figure out your planning and then go operate in that environment. And what we’ve learned from the space station is that we will learn things as we are trying to figure out how to operate in that environment.” Learning how people will react in that environment once they get to the lunar surface, how equipment will perform and how to live there sustainably for an extended period are just a snapshot of the challenges the program faces. “It is going to take us learning and figuring out how to live in that environment where you can’t just go pick something up.”
Lueders draws a parallel to her own family’s experience overseas. “My parents started out in Des Moines, Iowa, got an airplane and went to Tokyo, Japan. They had to learn how to operate in a totally different environment there.” Her father, a Lutheran Missionary, first landed in Japan in 1959 and Lueders was born in 1963, joining four older sisters—her brother Mark ’83 entered the scene a couple of years later. The struggles to buy food, figure out where to live and how to get places were challenging for the family “but at least the gravitational forces were the same and their bodies were operating kind of consistently” she jokes. “Now we’re taking people and we’re putting them in a new environment with their hardware and you are changing the laws of physics and you’re trying to figure out then how do we work in that environment and then can we keep continuing?” She continues, “I know as somebody that grew up in Japan until I was 14 years old that when I moved to the States, just having that different environment teaches you a lot about yourself. It’s the same thing with going into space, you know.” Adding that, “you don’t realize how much you learn about yourself on the planet until you go into space. It’s the same kind of thing that happens when you go on to a different country.”
In 2013, Lueders moved to the Kennedy Space Center as acting Commercial Crew Program Manager, becoming head of the office the following year. Building on the experience of working with other sovereign nations on the ISS, the next step in NASA’s evolution was extending similar partnerships into the commercial sector. “The biggest challenge was the trust, and I’d say it was the same challenge when we first began working with our international partners,” Lueders reflects. “You know, different companies talk a little bit differently, just like different countries,” she adds. Developing confidence in new commercial partners was a huge hurdle. “Can they take the data that we’ve collected over many years of human space flight experience, merge it with their years of experience, and then come up with a product where they can deliver our crew and cargo safely?” Lueders asked. “That’s a big leap of faith.”
Figuring out how to get American astronauts back to the moon is one thing—even with commercial partners—but doing it in a global pandemic is another. “Honestly, I feel like this was a huge year for all my teams. I mean, this was a year where we were bringing crew transportation back to US soil. At the same time, we were getting ready to fly the biggest booster since Saturn Five,” Lueders says. “And the team honestly has been working their butts off trying to accomplish it even while dealing with COVID.” On the transportation side her team kept working, putting in place contingency plans to operate in different ways that accommodate social distancing. “We actually did not slip our demo to launch and have stayed really close to our crew launches. But the SLS team—the big booster team—stood down for a couple of months and just to get it and everybody started again obviously was tougher, but we’re still on target for doing our Artemis I launch next fall,” she adds. “I do feel that the team feels very strongly that they’re trying to give people something to be really proud of during this really tough time.”
Personally, COVID-19 has also impacted the way Lueders works and she has mostly been working remotely since March with short periods of in person meetings and she still travels when she needs to. “As someone that’s lived in a different country, it’s kind of like going through that experience again— you’re far away from your coworkers and your family and you’re still having to try to be connected. Right? That’s very tough.”
When NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida on the afternoon of August 2 this year, they made history. The first American spacecraft to return to earth in a splashdown since 1975 marked the completion of the Demo-2 test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The first commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft’s successful return marked a new era in human spaceflight—something that even the corona virus couldn’t derail. “For us to be able to do some of the things we want to do for space exploration—maybe it’s 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 30 years from now—we will be figuring out other ways we can depend on companies to deliver our services just like we do and other facets of our life now."
Developing the hardware needed for human space flight is only one side of the story in NASA’s plan to go to the moon and beyond. The other is the crew that will go beyond where any human has ventured before. “There’s a whole class of superheroes,” Lueders says in reference to the men and women currently training in the program selected from thousands of applicants. “When you look at these people that want to go and their credentials, it’s just amazing. I’m always kind of amazed at the fact that we can really attract what is obviously the cream of the crop of resources out there. And what’s really cool about it is it’s people with all different kinds of experience because of the way the missions are,” she says. “You know, we’re really looking for people in some ways that have been able to deal with being isolated for a while, people that have experience in lots of different kinds of platforms across the world where they’ve had to do different kinds of experimental things,” she adds. “These are people that are also psychologically very, very tough and able to handle huge challenges.” The selection process to get the first woman and the next man on the moon is necessarily competitive and rigorous. “One of my favorite things that one of the Senate Commerce folks told me was when she said, ‘You know, I hate that saying, I don’t know why it can’t be the first two women on the moon.’”
Lueders own experience has often seen her be the first or only woman in a traditionally male dominated field. “Thankfully, over time, I think the agencies have gone from those pictures in the 60s that you see where everybody is wearing pocket protectors, white shirts and black ties and all have black framed glasses,” she quips. “Today, you know, you see more and more women in positions within NASA. So I will tell you, when I first got the call about taking the job, the thought of me being the first woman was not the first thing on my mind. I had also been the first woman program manager and I hadn’t realized that at the time.” Lueders didn’t accept the position immediately and asked for some time to think it over. “I got off the phone and my husband was like, you’re crazy. You need to go do this. You’re going to be the first woman to do this job. You need to do this. And, you know, I’ll tell you, man, I thought that it’s not that big a deal, but I was totally overwhelmed with the number of women across the world that reached out to me after it being announced,” she says. “The girls in India and South America and Canada and Japan that said, you know, because you’re in that job, I see that I can have that job someday. You know there’s lots of places in the world today where we need more women to have these kinds of jobs so that girls—and really anybody—can be able to see themselves in a job.” She goes on to say she hates the fact that she has to tell people that her husband was right and that gender and appearance shouldn’t play a part in hiring, only skill.
“Everybody out there, especially in the science and technology area, we need for the problems. I mean, you know, we’re not trying to do the easy things,” she says. “I’m up here going, I want to go to the lunar surface. And, hey, guess what? I want to go to Mars and I want to go on to other places. These are not easy problems. So I better hope that every person out there that’s got a brilliant brain in their body is willing to come and help us go figure out how to do this no matter what their gender background is.”
So given the opportunity to take a seat on one of the upcoming missions, would Lueders take that leap beyond our planet herself? “You know, I would love to go to the moon. I don’t think people realize how tough you have to be to make it through crew training...When I go look at some of those crew members, they’re like superheroes. So I would love to go, but I don’t know if they’d take me,” she says. “I need to start doing my push ups now.”