SpaceX Hires Former NASA Official as Starship General Manager

SpaceX has hired former NASA human spaceflight official Kathy Lueders as general manager for Starship development. Lueders’ duties will include helping make Starship flightworthy for future crewed missions.

Lueders previously oversaw NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which successfully incubated SpaceX’s development of the Crew Dragon. The Crew Dragon regularly flies NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program. It has also been used for private flights such as Inspiration4 and Axiom Space’s series of flights to the International Space Station.

Lueders will work at the “Starbase” test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, where she will report to SpaceX President and COO Gwynn Shotwell. Shotwell took charge of Starship development amid delays in testing that included the FAA’s nearly two-year-long approval process for the planned orbital test.

SpaceX had expected to conduct the test during the summer of 2021, but it kept getting pushed back. When it finally did get off the ground, the first stage booster failed to separate from the Starship spacecraft and it suffered a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly.

The FAA is currently facing a lawsuit for allegedly bungling the required environmental analysis, even though approval of the orbital test took long enough that it was likely not done in haste. The plaintiff do not currently name SpaceX as a defendant.

Despite the Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly, Elon Musk seems confident that SpaceX could learn from the data derived from the test and make a quick turnaround in Starship-related testing. No, the damage to the launchpad likely won’t help. However, Elon Musk has previously floated the idea of moving Starship testing to Cape Canaveral, which has decades of experience with launching big rockets.

Starship will be expected to take on a variety of mission profiles. It could carry cargo from point to point on Earth, launch larger satellites and scientific probes than the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy can, and eventually carry crews and cargo to Mars.

The Pentagon expressed interest in Starship for rapidly delivering critical humanitarian and military supplies to anywhere in the world. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to continue development on a Starship-derived lunar lander — something that Blue Origin hotly contested.

Private citizens who already booked flights on Starship include Dennis Tito, who is best known for being the first “space tourist” — a private citizen who previously paid a Russian company for a ride to the International Space Station. The move had been controversial at the time due to the International Space Station’s status as a valuable (and expensive) platform for science experiments in microgravity.

Japanese fashion mogul Yuzaku Maezawa recently announced the crew for the dearMoon mission, which will go to the Moon and back. Most of the crew members work in the arts.

The two flights are likely to provide additional data for Starship’s performance during a lunar mission. This data will prove valuable for a future crewed landing, which could happen as early as NASA’s Artemis III.

With paying customers already lining up for a ride on Starship, Elon Musk may reasonably become impatient with progress on Starship development. He may have put Gwynn Shotwell in charge of development out of pure frustration.

SpaceX is also hiring former NASA employees to help. It previously hired William Gerstenmaier, who likewise oversaw NASA’s human spaceflight program, as its vice president of build and flight reliability. Now it has hired Kathy Lueders as general manager for Starship development.