Elon Musk’s SpaceX has tapped NASA’s former human spaceflight boss Kathy Lueders to help oversee the development of the company’s moon and Mars rocket called Starship, a person familiar with the hire said on Monday. Lueders, the second former NASA human spaceflight chief to retire and move to SpaceX in recent years, represents another key hire for the company as it races to develop Starship, a fully reusable vehicle designed to carry astronauts and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond.
Starship is more than 100 feet tall with 33 engines and 16 million pounds of thrust, and it’s designed to carry up to 100 people on long-duration interplanetary flights. During its test flight earlier this month, crowds of spectators lined local beaches to catch a glimpse of the spaceship as it rolled down the runway for takeoff, with some even bringing foldout chairs and kids. Unfortunately, the countdown was ultimately halted by engineers troubleshooting a problem with a valve on the Super Heavy booster.
Atop the Super Heavy, the stainless steel Starship is expected to fly several more times this year as it undergoes tests at SpaceX’s Texas facility. Eventually, the company plans to use Starship for landing NASA astronauts on the moon as part of its Artemis program, but only after at least one uncrewed test flight.
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NASA’s current moon-landing rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS, will only see its first crewed mission in 2024, and that will only happen after it has flown at least a few uncrewed missions. SpaceX has a sole-source contract for the first SLS mission and is expected to submit its final design this summer if selected.
How many missions the SLS will fly is still being determined before NASA decides whether to continue with the contract. But the agency has already pushed back the launch date of its first uncrewed mission this spring, which would have served as an early test for Starship’s capabilities.
In her new role at SpaceX, Lueders will report to President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. Lueders has been with NASA for 31 years and most recently managed the successful conclusion of the Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs. As a result, SpaceX became the only private company transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
She’ll have plenty to do to ensure that Starship can meet its ambitious goals, including the test landing of the vehicle on the moon later this year. If everything goes well, the test flight could be a dress rehearsal for the first lunar trip aboard Starship in 2025. Then, the rocket must be redeveloped to carry NASA astronauts on an actual Mars mission. And that’s where things could get complicated.