NASA undergoes a major rejig, splits human spaceflight unit into two, in an adaptation to new realities of space economy

WASHINGTON: With eyes set on future deep space missions, NASA has announced a major organisational change by splitting it’s human spaceflight unit into two separate bodies – one dedicated to big , significant future missions to Moon and Mars, another to International Space Station and other missions in Earth orbit.

The reorganization, announced by NASA chief Bill Nelson on Tuesday, reflects new realities of orbital economy where private companies, such as SpaceX, have increasingly commercialized rocket travel in a sector that had witnessed a U.S.state monopoly for decades.

Nelson said the revamp was also stimulated by the recent proliferation of flights and commercial investment in low-Earth orbit even as NASA steps up its development of deep-space aspirations. In the press briefing of announcement he said “It’s setting the stage for the next 20 years, it’s defining NASA’s future in a growing space economy.”

This move breaks up NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) into two new entities: the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) and Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD).

“This reorganization positions NASA and the United States for success as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, all while supporting the continued commercialization of space and research on the International Space Station and will also allow the United States to maintain its leadership in space for decades to come”, said NASA chief in the statement.

Detailed press statement released by NASA:

ESDMD will be responsible for the development of systems and technology critical for NASA’s ‘Artemis Program’ which aims to land astronauts on the moon in next few years and establish a sustainable human presence on and around Earth’s nearest neighbour by the end of the 2020s. It will also map out NASA’s “Moon to Mars” exploration strategy, of which Artemis is an integral part (NASA aims to land humans on Mars in 2030s, by leveraging the skills and techniques learned during the Artemis moon effort).

Whereas, SOMD will take the charge of crewed launches and ongoing human spaceflight operations, including activities on the International Space Station and the commercialization of low Earth orbit.

Kathy Lueders, the current head of HEOMD, will lead SOMD whereas ESDMD will be headed by Jim Free, who has held a number of NASA leadership positions over the years. The changes will not alter any missions or the roles played by agency research centers, NASA officials said

The splitting makes NASA go back to it’s previous structure. It was only in 2011, when the agency created HEOMD by combining the Space Operations and Exploration Systems mission directorates.

The announcement has just come a week after SpaceX , launched the first all-civilian crew ever to reach orbit and returned them safely to Earth.

The organisational change in NASA was a strong recommendation from President Biden transition team, which attributed the necessity of change in agency structure for the improvement in it’s budgeting process, which is often marred with complexity and criticism from Congressional members due to the lack of clarity in it’s exploration missions.

This approach to focus on two areas separately allows one mission directorate to operate in space while the other builds future space systems, so there is a constant cycle of development and operations to advance NASA’s goals in space exploration.

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