- Doug Loverro, who led NASA’s human spaceflight division, has resigned after just six months on the job.
- Loverro quit a week before SpaceX is scheduled to launch its first passengers — two NASA astronauts — on a mission called Demo-2.
- In an email to NASA employees, Loverro referenced an unspecified “mistake” in risk-taking that led to his resignation.
- Ars Technica reported the mistake is “not related” to SpaceX’s first crewed mission, but seemingly NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the moon’s surface.
- An industry veteran told Business Insider that NASA’s interim replacement “has the experience and judgement to shepherd human spaceflight through the coming weeks.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In a shock to the rocket-and-spaceship industry, NASA’s human spaceflight chief abruptly resigned on Monday. Congress is also taking note of the rapid departure — the second from the critical agency role in less than a year.
The departure of Doug Loverro, who took command of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate on December 2, comes at a critical time for the US space agency.
On May 27, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its first passengers — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — on a roughly three-month mission to space called Demo-2. The test flight is designed to show NASA that SpaceX, the rocket company Elon Musk founded 18 years ago, can safely launch people into orbit aboard its Crew Dragon spaceship, dock with the International Space Station, and return the crew to Earth.
If successful, the crewed mission would be the first to launch from American soil since July 2011, which is when NASA flew its last space shuttle mission.
Before joining NASA, Loverro served as a member of the Department of Defense’s Senior Executive Service. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine previously described Loverro as “a respected strategic leader” who was to help execute the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which Demo-2 is a part of. He also managed an ambitious (and controversial) plan to land humans back on the moon in 2024, called Artemis.
“He is known for his strong, bipartisan work and his experience with large programs will be of great benefit to NASA at this critical time in our final development of human spaceflight systems for both Commercial Crew and Artemis,” Bridenstine said in an October 16 announcement of Loverro’s hiring.
SpaceRef published an all-hands email that Loverro sent to NASA’s human exploration division on Tuesday, the day after he officially resigned.
“The risks we take, whether technical, political, or personal, all have potential consequences if we judge them incorrectly. I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission,” Loverro wrote mid-way through his email. “Now, over the balance of time, it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences. And therefore, it is with a very, very heavy heart that I write to you today to let you know that I have resigned from NASA effective May 18th, 2020.”
He told his colleagues that he left “because of my personal actions, not anything we have accomplished together.”
The executive’s departure from NASA on Monday was by all account unexpected. At 5 p.m. ET, for example, Loverro tweeted a NASA video explaining how the agency’s forthcoming (and very over-budget and behind-schedule) Space Launch System works.
Loverro did not specify the nature of his perceived mistake in his email to employees, or to the press. Though Politico reporter Jacqueline Feldscher managed to reach Loverro by phone, for instance, he declined to comment on his “mistake.” But he did reportedly intimate that his resignation was “not due to a disagreement with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine or any safety concerns about next week’s launch.”
Eric Berger, the senior space editor at Ars Technica, stated that Loverro’s folly was “not related to Crew Dragon,” which is the spaceship that’s about to launch Behnken and Hurley. Rather, Berger said it seemed to stem from Loverro’s selection of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics for nearly $1 billion worth of lunar lander contracts for the Artemis program. (The agency is struggling for resources to execute the program on-time.)
A spokesperson at NASA declined to comment on the matter. Members of Congress, for their part, have begun to speak up about the incident.
“I am deeply concerned over this sudden resignation, especially given its timing,” Rep. Kendra Horn, a Democrat from Oklahoma, who chairs the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, told Politico in a statement. “Under this administration, we’ve seen a pattern of abrupt departures that have disrupted our nation’s efforts at human space flight. … The bottom line is that, as the committee that overseas [sic] NASA, we need answers.”
Loverro’s departure comes less than a year after the July demotion of Bill Gerstenmaier, who led NASA’s human spaceflight division for nearly 15 years. Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut and the deputy associate administrator for NASA’s human spaceflight division, is filling in for Loverro’s role as he did following Gerstenmaier’s departure.
Wayne Hale, an aerospace engineering consultant and retired NASA space shuttle program manager and flight director, says he was “surprised as anyone” to learn of Loverro’s apparent ouster. But he did not express doubt about the agency’s current position with Bowersox at the helm.
“I have great confidence in Ken Bowersox,” Hale told Business Insider in a message, adding that he “has the experience and judgment to shepherd human spaceflight through the coming weeks.”
This story has been updated with new information.