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The move breaks up NASA's human exploration and operations mission directorate, currently headed by Kathy Leuders, into two separate branches.

Leuders will keep her associate administrator title as head of the new exploration systems development mission directorate, focusing on NASA's most ambitious, long-term programmes, such as plans to return astronauts to the moon under project Artemis, and eventual human exploration of Mars.

A retired deputy associate administrator, James Free, who played key roles in NASA's space station and commercial crew and cargo programmes, will return to the agency as head of the new space operations mission directorate.

His branch will primarily oversee more routine launch and spaceflight activities, including missions involving the space station and privatisation of low-Earth orbit, as well as sustaining lunar operations once those have been established.

"This approach with two areas focused on human spaceflight allows one mission directorate to operate in space while the other builds future space systems," NASA said in a press release announcing the move.

The announcement came less than a week after SpaceX, which had already flown numerous astronaut missions and cargo payloads to the space station for NASA, launched the first all-civilian crew ever to reach orbit and returned them safely to Earth.

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