NASA's head of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders joined us on stage at TechCrunch Sessions: Space, where she spoke to scientist and Netflix host Emily Calandrelli about her work at the agency — including NASA's progress on the Artemis program and the return of American astronauts to the surface of the moon.
The 2024 target for NASA's first Artemis moon landing has been oft-repeated by the agency, and by current NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who has confirmed that his tenure is ending in January once the Biden administration takes over the U.S. presidency. But it's also a timeline that has raised many an eyebrow among outside observers, and seems particularly challenging given setbacks resulting from stay-at-home orders and remote-work measures implemented by NASA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"When we had Commercial Crew, my goal was 2017," Lueders said. "We did not fly in 2017, even though we were working super, super hard to get to 2017. Having that 2017 goal didn't mean that I made stupid decisions just to get to 2017 — I still carefully went through and made the decisions. And then we ended up flying in 2020 — in fact we ended up flying [the mission] in 2019, which originally would have been our 2017 goal. People get very fixated on 2024, because it is an important goal for us. But I also know that we'll work through this carefully, and we will inform people of our progress along the way, just like we've done for every single other program out there. And we will fly when we're ready to fly with the mission capability that we need to fly in a safe and effective manner."
Lueders also addressed a question about diversity, and racial diversity in the agency, and its importance to the agency. Lueders is the first woman to ever occupy the role of the associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, who leads all human spaceflight activities across the agency.
"I want people to see themselves in what we're doing, because the point of this is it's not about NASA doing this anymore," she said. "This is about you doing it, and about you being able to do it. I think one of the most striking things that I got was a letter from a nine-year-old girl in India right after I got announced. And she said, 'Because you have your job, I think I can be NASA administrator someday.' And you saw the diversity in that Artemis crew, and we want people to see themselves out there."
Lueders also talked about the diversity present in the NASA Artemis astronaut class, which it just announced, and about the potential for who from that pool will be selected to actually crew the first lunar landing for Artemis.
"One of my favorite things is, I'm still not sure it can't be two women," she said. "We need to pick the right people."