First woman to lead NASA spaceflight encourages STEM exploration

Kathy Lueders broke a glass ceiling when she was selected as NASA's associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in June 2020.

Kathy Lueders ’93 ’99 was preparing for a career on Wall Street until she decided to switch gears and pursue engineering.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of New Mexico, taking time to get married and have two children, she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in industrial engineering at NMSU. In 1992, she began her career in the propulsion test office at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility as only the second woman to work there, where she became the Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System and Reaction Control Systems Depot manager.

“I believe that science, technology, engineering and math activities help us solve big problems,” Lueders says. “It is how we push the industry and world to solve human problems. I wanted to be a part of finding those solutions.”

In June 2020, Lueders was selected as NASA’s associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. This time, Lueders was the pioneer as the first woman to have that role, and she’s enjoying leading her team.

“Together, we are solving problems every day and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the job,” Lueders says. “And there are a lot of small problems to solve to achieve our ultimate goal of moving humans to Mars, where NASA has already been exploring for 50 years with robotics.”

After her stint at White Sands, Lueders served as Transportation Integration Manager for the International Space Station program, which oversaw the first International cargo vehicles and brought the first commercial cargo vehicles to the ISS. From 2014 to 2020, Lueders guided NASA’s efforts to send astronauts to space on private spacecraft, which was achieved with the successful Demo-2 launch from the Kennedy Space Center in May 2020.

While Lueders has broken a glass ceiling, she wants youth to realize a similar career is not out of their reach.

“I want everybody out there to know they can have a career like mine,” she says. “I was not a space geek. I was interested in engineering because it gave me the tools to solve problems and work on something bigger. I would tell young people that working on these problems is the most fun thing in the world. They can do it. And we will need their help in solving the hard problems NASA will have in the future.”

Tiffany Acosta