NASA’s selection of Kathy Lueders to become the new associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate has been met with universal praise. Even former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who is on record as wanting to cancel the Artemis return to the moon program, was quite effusive.
Lueders is coming off a highly successful term as program manager of the Commercial Crew program. Commercial Crew achieved a world historic milestone recently with the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch that delivered two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The mission was the first crewed spaceflight operated by a private company, placing SpaceX in the same category as NASA, Russia and China as a space power.
Lueders’ first task will be to exert steady leadership over the HEO directorate, shaken by the train wreck caused by the sudden departure of her predecessor Doug Loverro. Loverro was forced to resign, reportedly because he violated the Procurement Integrity Act by secretly favoring Boeing during the down select for the lunar lander contract. The matter is a subject of an ongoing investigation by the NASA Office of Inspector General.
Lueders, because of her work overseeing Commercial Crew, has a close working knowledge of two of the major players in the Artemis program. Those companies are Boeing, the prime contractor of the Space Launch System heavy lift rocket and SpaceX, one of the firms competing for the lunar lander contract. As Ars Technica’s Eric Berger noted, “She just spent a decade closely observing how two of NASA's key contractors, Boeing and SpaceX, approach and solve technical problems. She saw who executed, and who did not.”
While trying to keep Artemis on track for the planned 2024 moon landing, Lueders has an even bigger problem: convincing Congress to provide enough funding to make that happen. A recent article in Axios suggests that making the 2024 landing would be difficult. Congress is spending a great deal of money on the coronavirus pandemic and may want to cut rather than increase funding for Artemis. On the other hand, it can be argued that fully funding Artemis would aid in the economic recovery from the pandemic.
Lueders stated in a recent teleconference, "We're going to try, right? Sometimes it's the trying that gets us closer to the goal than the not trying." The idea is that the surest way not to make the 2024 date is to not to try.
The upcoming presidential election provides another element of uncertainty. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News reporter says Biden called him after 'son of a b----' remark Peloton responds after another TV character has a heart attack on one of its bikes Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert MORE has not provided any hint of what his space policy will be should he win the election aside from some platitudes. He could choose to keep with the 2024 landing date. He could delay the date of the moon landing but continue Artemis at a slower pace. He could cancel the return to the moon program altogether.
The sort of uncertain future that Artemis faces has bedeviled long term, large scale NASA projects from the very beginning of the space age. The last two return-to-the-moon programs, both started by presidents named George Bush, were unceremoniously cancelled by their Democratic successors. The International Space Station was almost stillborn, except that President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE restructured it, brought in Russia as a partner and then threw his support behind it.
The 2024 landing date was President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE’s attempt to forestall what happened to the previous return-to-the-moon programs. The theory was that if the first woman and the next man were to walk on the moon, Artemis’ momentum would be unstoppable. However, the plan depends on Trump winning a second term. Current polling suggests that a Trump victory this November may be difficult at best.
Of course, Biden has a number of documented weaknesses. Trump has a solid core of supporters who will walk across hot coals to vote for him. The president has an enormous campaign war chest. A change of administrations is by no means certain.
Lueders is not a political appointee but a civil service, NASA employee, having served in senior positions under both President Obama and now President Trump. She has a lot of street credit — thanks to the success of Commercial Crew — that will stand her in good stead for the Artemis program. Will that credibility be enough to save Artemis and land the first Americans on the moon since 1972 just four years hence, no matter who is president? The answer will determine the future of America’s space program and, indeed, of the United States itself.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.