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NASA Names New Highest-Ranking Civil Servant, Head of Exploration  

NASA’s Jim Free and Cathy Koerner

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced Wednesday Jim Free’s promotion to associate administrator for the agency at NASA Headquarters in Washington, effective when his predecessor Bob Cabana retires on Sunday, Dec. 31. Since September 2021, Free has served as the associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD).  

Nelson also announced Free’s deputy, Catherine Koerner, will succeed him as the next head of the mission directorate. 

“So many of us in the NASA family have worked with Jim and have been inspired by his character and intellect. Pam, Bob, and I strongly believe that his wealth of experience and expertise will bring exceptional guidance and perspective to our leadership team in his new role as associate administrator, enhancing our collective efforts toward achieving bold goals for the benefit of all humanity,” said Administrator Nelson.Cathy’s experience as the ESDMD deputy associate administrator – including her leadership in establishing and defining future space exploration architectures while overseeing the development of our deep space transportation systems – has prepared her for this new role as associate administrator for ESDMD. Cathy’s leadership will help NASA continue to extend humanity’s reach in the cosmos. Congratulations, Jim and Cathy!”  

As associate administrator, Free will become NASA’s third highest-ranking executive, as well as highest-ranking civil servant. This role serves as a senior advisor to Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. When he assumes his role, Free also will lead the agency’s 10 center directors, and five mission directorate associate administrators at NASA Headquarters. He will act as the agency’s chief operating officer for more than 18,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $25 billion.

Before his appointment to associate administrator of Exploration Systems Development in 2021, Free spent several years in various private sector roles. He left NASA in 2017 after serving as the agency’s deputy associate administrator for technical in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.  

Prior to joining NASA Headquarters, he worked his way up to center director at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, where he was responsible for planning, organizing, and directing the activities required in accomplishing the missions assigned to the center.  Free has served a variety of roles at NASA centers since beginning his career in 1990 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

A native of Northeast Ohio, Free earned his bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and his master’s degree in space systems engineering from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.  

Free is the recipient of the Presidential Rank Award, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, NASA Significant Achievement Medal, and numerous other awards.  

In her new role as the associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, Koerner will assume responsibility for the development of NASA’s Moon to Mars architecture, defining and managing the systems development for Artemis missions, and planning for integrated deep space exploration approach. 

As deputy associate administrator for the mission directorate, Koerner provides leadership and management of human spaceflight development and operations related to NASA’s Moon and Mars exploration goals. She currently is responsible for establishing and defining future space exploration architectures while overseeing development of new space transportation systems and supporting capabilities that are critical for human-led deep space exploration and scientific research.  

Prior to her positions at NASA Headquarters, Koerner was NASA’s Orion Program manager at NASA Johnson, where she was responsible for oversight of design, development, and testing of the Orion spacecraft. Before leading the Orion Program, Koerner served as the director of Human Health and Performance Directorate, focusing on enhancing crew health and performance and mitigating risks associated with human spaceflight.  

As a former NASA flight director, Koerner led teams in NASA’s mission control during space shuttle and International Space Station missions. She also previously held several leadership positions within the space station program during its assembly phase and managed NASA’s cargo resupply services contracts for it, helping foster a commercial space industry in low Earth orbit. Before Johnson, she worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Koerner earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has received numerous awards including a Presidential Rank Award in 2019, two Outstanding Leadership Medals (2006, 2013), NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal (2007), Johnson’s Center Director Commendation (2017) and numerous Group Achievement Awards. 

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Last Updated
Nov 17, 2023
Jennifer M. Dooren

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