NASA Sets Eyes On Deep Space With Admin Shuffle

Since the Apollo 17 crew returned from the Moon in 1972, human spaceflight has been limited to low Earth orbit (LEO). Whether they were aboard Skylab, Mir, the Space Shuttle, a Soyuz capsule, or the International Space Station, no crew has traveled more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) or so from the Earth’s surface in nearly 50 years. Representatives of the world’s space organizations would say they have been using Earth orbit as a testing ground for the technology that will be needed for more distant missions, but those critical of our seemingly stagnated progress into the solar system would say we’ve simply been stuck.

Many have argued that the International Space Station has consumed an inordinate amount of NASA’s time and budget, making it all but impossible for the agency to formulate concrete plans for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit. The Orion and SLS programs are years behind schedule, and the flagship deep space excursions that would have utilized them, such as the much-touted Asteroid Redirect Mission, never materialized. The cracks are even starting to form in the Artemis program, which appears increasingly unlikely to meet its original goal of returning astronauts to the Moon’s surface by 2024.

But with the recent announcement that NASA will be splitting the current Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two distinct groups, the agency may finally have the administrative capacity it needs to juggle their existing LEO interests and deep space aspirations. With construction of the ISS essentially complete, and the commercial spaceflight market finally coming together, the reorganization will allow NASA to start shifting the focus of their efforts to more distant frontiers such as the Moon and Mars.

A Lasting Foothold

The Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) will oversee existing and future operational programs in low Earth orbit. In the immediate sense, that means the ISS as well as the commercial crew and cargo missions that support it. Crewed lunar operations would also fall under the purview of the SOMD, but only once they have moved into their operational phase.

Critically, SOMD will also be tasked with assisting in the commercialization of LEO. That could include everything from managing the logistics of civilian missions like the recent Inspiration 4 flight, to making it easier for researchers to get their experiments onto the ISS. If all goes according to plan, the department will also be in charge of the commercial expansions that are currently being considered for the ISS, which would leverage the Station’s existing systems to help kick-start the development of its eventual replacement.

Commercial stations could be assembled at the ISS.

Ultimately NASA is looking to transition from taking an active roll in the development of low Earth spacecraft, and instead use its collected data and experience to provide logistical support for commercial operators to take its place. This has been their stated goal for many years, but only recently, with the rise of New Space companies like SpaceX, has it actually been within reach. Just as NASA now pays to fly their astronauts and cargo on commercially developed and operated rockets rather than maintaining their own vehicle, the space agency would like to one day simply book lodging for their astronauts on a commercial space station.

The goals of the Space Operations Mission Directorate are essentially identical to that of the previous Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, minus the tacked-on deep space responsibilities. SOMD will even be helmed by Kathy Lueders, the same person that was previously overseeing all of NASA’s human spaceflight programs. In a way, the establishment of this new directorate could be seen not as a dramatic operational shift, but as a way to take some of the workload off of Lueders.

Expanding Our Reach

To better tackle the challenges of expanding humanity’s presence in the solar system, the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) will concern itself only with the missions, programs, and hardware that operate beyond low Earth orbit. As of right now that means the agency’s troubled Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, the Orion crew capsule, and the totality of the Artemis lunar program. Looking ahead, the ESDMD would be responsible for taking the experience gained on and around the Moon and adapting it towards a crewed mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

NASA has selected James Free to head the ESDMD, an experienced engineer who got his start working on propulsion systems at Goddard Space Flight Center in 1990. He supported the development of the Orion capsule in several positions, and served as overall manager for the Orion Service Module.

He was eventually promoted to Director of the Glenn Research Center, and finally to Deputy Associate Administrator for Technical in the human spaceflight division, before retiring from the agency in 2017. Since then, he has worked as an aerospace consultant in the private sector.

By bringing Free back from retirement to head the ESDMD, NASA is banking on his considerable first-hand experience with deep space hardware to help guide the decision making process for SLS, Orion, and the lunar Human Landing System. On the other hand, some in the industry have already expressed concerns that he lacks the experience with commercial spaceflight that Kathy Lueders has developed over the last several years.

Going Boldly

The Space Operations Mission Directorate represents the part of NASA that simply wants to be one passenger of many, performing LEO research as cheaply and safely as possible by virtue of vibrant commercial competition. On the other end of the spectrum, the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate better represents the derring-do space agency of old that broke new ground at every turn and put astronauts on the Moon.

Of course, until there’s fresh boot prints on the lunar surface, it’s all just politics. Only time will tell if this administrative restructuring is enough to rekindle the type of passion that led the agency through the Apollo years. But one thing is for sure: separated from the banality of LEO, the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate will have the freedom to truly commit to deep space exploration in a way that hasn’t been possible for a long time.

17 thoughts on “NASA Sets Eyes On Deep Space With Admin Shuffle

  1. Be great to have the NASA of the 60s back with the percentage of funding for them of the 60s. Instead of the moon we get more (arguably useless and far more expensive to launch from Earth) mars robots. But there’s a helicopter at least!

    1. The NASA of the 60’s was run like a start up with a far different culture that cannot be replicated today anymore than Lockheed Skunk works can be. A culture that has been vilified as well. One only has to look what happened to one engineer at Cal Tech who happened to wear a shirt that offended the easily triggered across the globe during the Mar Rover landing.

      Also back then our aerospace industry was far more robust and numerous. Today we have two mega corps that are near brain dead welfare recipients. Space X is basically using recycled tech from the 60’s though doing a fine job with it.

      Yes we could divert money from the bloated DoD budget but it won’t get us much given how the two principal aerospace giants are embracing wokeness at the expense of competency.

      Consider that the new NASA space suits cost $500 million each should make anyone think twice about pumping money into a rotten and corrupt agency.

    1. I don’t know, the worm has only been used in LEO while the meatball was in use during our only trip to “deep” space. So seems more appropriate to keep with that tradition.

      Plus the Falcons that will be assigned to SOMD are already sporting the worm, albeit in a weird sideways layout which I believe breaks NASA’s own style manual…

  2. A number of things piss me off regarding the wording used by NASA and similar space entities:
    1 – Only the Voyager Missions can be said to have reached “deep space” (or are reaching) as these are the only missions (as far as I recall) that have left or are leaving the solar system.
    2 – Calling going to orbit going to deep space is like saying going to your neighbor next door is the same as leaving the planet.
    3 – Going to the Moon is going to near earth space, not deep space either
    4 – Going past the Moon can be said to be going to deeper solar space
    5 – Going up to “orbit level” altitudes without orbiting IS NOT GOINT TO SPACE. It’s to have a glimpse at what it may be, and a pretty incomplete one at that.

    It pisses me off that these supposedly scientific can be so inaccurate and misleading, this is insulting to inteligence.

    1. Nobody is going to orbit level without orbiting. The two suborbital launch systems recently commercially debuted, were both designed explicitly for suborbital flight and are inherently incompatible with the energy (altitude and horizontal velocity) required to reach orbit. 50 miles is a lot different than 200-some that the iss is it.

  3. I think the real issue with NASA is the inability to take risks. There is too much political cost to failure at NASA. They need to get across the message that sometimes you need to fail to push technology limits. The shuttle accidents were even related to this. They were so hesitant to re-engineer known problems (icing O-rings and impacts on thermal protection systems that were known and not corrected) in the STS program that they failed to prevent accidents. There has to be a level where you take some technical chances (hopefully without the loss of life) in order to make strides forward. The only company I see doing this today is SpaceX who seems not afraid to try, fail, and try again. A lot of people inside of NASA and the traditional contractors were thinking that SpaceX was crazy until they started succeeding and sticking landings. Elon Musk regardless of your personal opinion of him seems to be on a mission with a timeline and is willing to break a few eggs to get there. There are some others like Blue Origin but to me they seem to be recycling the breakthroughs of others. I disagree that SpaceX is simply recycling old technology. They are taking ideas from the past that worked well and doing new things like perfecting the methane powered engine cycle as well as using current compute capability to do thing like land reusable rockets. Seems to me to be a pragmatic mix of whatever it takes to get the final result which for SpaceX seems to be making humans multiplanetary. That is another key difference. SpaceX sees everything through the eyes of making humans multiplanetary, NASA sees things like going back to the moon as an end goal. My question for NASA is going back to the moon for what purpose?

    Frankly I think it is embarrassing for Artemis to be so far behind schedule, if NASA could go to the moon in the 70s why are they struggling to get back there. The technology has only improved since Apollo so the answer has to be in management and process. They have forgotten how to work toward a goal and a deadline.

    People say there does not need to be a deadline but I believe that any project without deadlines is guaranteed to flounder. There needs to be pressure to create sense of urgency. Kennedy did that for Apollo and the cold war did that as well.

    There has been a huge change in NASA from engineers to academics. I think a big part of the problem today is using academia to study everything to death and their lifeline is continued funding for more research. The NASA of the Apollo days used large contractor engineering that only got paid to deliver hardware within a timeline. That is a completely different mindset to start with a deliverable and a due date and then do the work to get there.

  4. Sadly, both of NASA’s human programs are now hideously expensive irrelevant jokes. Artemis will now depend on the SpaceX Starship HLS to handle the last stage from the trip from the Lunar Gateway to the lunar surface, using the SLS/Orion to take a max of 7 Astronauts from Earth to Gateway. SLS/Orion continues to slip. But HLS could easily carry fifty or more astronauts, and a regular SpaceX Starship could easily take 50 or more astronauts from Earth to Gateway orbit to transfer to HLS.

    Artemis depends on NASA’s new space suits, but they are also late. NASA is now trying to outsource the suits.

    ISS is almost to end-of-life. It could be replaced by a single Starship with almost as much pressurized volume as ISS, or with a pair of linked Starships. Starships are very inexpensive to build by space standards.

    NASA now uses SpaceX Crew Dragon (launched on Spacex Falcon 9) to transport crew to and from ISS. They were supposed to share this duty with the Boeing Starliner (at 50% higher cost per launch) but Starliner will not be operatinal for another 18 months at least.

  5. That’s a lot of spin over a restructuring that basically pulled the Artemis program (human missions to the moon) out from under Kathy Leuder’s leadership amidst Blue Origin’s lawsuit over how the Appendix H Human Landing System contract was awarded.

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