A federal criminal probe is looking into allegations of misconduct by a former NASA official who abruptly resigned from his position at the agency in May, The Wall Street Journal reports. Prosecutors are investigating if the official illegally disclosed information to Boeing about how to compete to build NASA’s new human lunar lander, the report states.
The target of the probe is Doug Loverro, who was NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight for around six months. On May 19th, Loverro suddenly left NASA just a week before two of the agency’s astronauts were set to launch on a historic mission with SpaceX to the International Space Station. At the time, Loverro said that he had taken a “risk” early in the year. “The risks we take, whether technical, political, or personal, all have potential consequences if we judge them incorrectly,” he wrote in a memo at the time. “I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission. 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.”
Rumors began to swirl that Loverro had acted improperly during NASA’s procurement of a new human landing system for the agency’s Artemis program, an initiative to send the first woman to the surface of the Moon. Last year, NASA released a call for private companies to submit designs for landers that could carry astronauts to and from the Moon. Aerospace heavyweight Boeing reportedly submitted a bid, and now, investigators at the US attorney’s office in DC are reportedly wondering if Loverro tried to give Boeing some help during the competition. Specifically, the probe is looking at whether Loverro gave crucial information about the procurement to Jim Chilton, senior vice president of the space and launch division at Boeing, outside of the established procurement channels, the WSJ reports. According to the WSJ:
Mr. Loverro, who wasn’t part of NASA’s official contracting staff, informed Mr. Chilton that the Chicago aerospace giant was about to be eliminated from the competition based on cost and technical evaluations, according to some of the people. Within days, Boeing submitted a revised proposal, they said. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration formally determined the bid changes came too late to be considered, and three other companies won contracts in April totaling nearly $1 billion.
Originally, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General was looking into these allegations, but now that OIG probe is on hold as this new criminal one unfolds, according to the WSJ. This investigation is still in its early stages and may not result in criminal charges. But if the allegations turn out to be true, it’s possible that Loverro may have violated the Procurement Integrity Act, which “prohibits the release of source selection and contractor bid or proposal information,” according to the Department of Justice.
Loverro reportedly said he was trying to keep the procurement process agile by “reducing the likelihood that the bidding process would be slowed down by potential challenges or appeals to the outcome,” the WSJ writes. Ultimately, NASA awarded final contracts to SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics to further refine the designs for their lander proposals. Boeing’s absence from the winner’s list was widely noticed, as the company has long received major spaceflight hardware contracts for NASA. Boeing is the main contractor for the International Space Station and is currently building NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, to take humans to deep space.
Boeing’s relationship with NASA, however, has seemingly strained lately. The company is a major partner with NASA through the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which tasked Boeing and rival SpaceX to develop capsules that can take humans to and from the International Space Station. Boeing launched its capsule — the CST-100 Starliner — on an uncrewed flight test to the station in December, but the mission suffered multiple software glitches that prevented the vehicle from actually reaching the ISS. NASA conducted an investigation into the botched mission, coming up with 80 corrective actions that Boeing needs to take with its Starliner program.