NASA’s head of human spaceflight resigns ahead of historic SpaceX launch

The head of NASA’s human exploration program, Doug Loverro, has resigned less than six months after assuming the position within the agency, according to a NASA memo. The drastic change in leadership comes just a week before NASA will launch its first astronauts from the US in nearly a decade, on top of SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spacecraft.

This is the second time during the Trump administration that this role has been in turmoil. In July 2019, NASA demoted the original person in this position, William Gerstenmaier, who had been serving as the associate administrator for human exploration at NASA for nearly 15 years. Loverro took over the position in December after a long search by NASA, but now his tenure has been cut short.

“Loverro hit the ground running this year and has made significant progress in his time at NASA,” a memo to NASA employees states. “His leadership of [human exploration] has moved us closer to accomplishing our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024. Loverro has dedicated more than four decades of his life in service to our country, and we thank him for his service and contributions to the agency.”

Loverro resigned on Monday, May 18th, however NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine did not mention the change to Vice President Mike Pence during the meeting of the National Space Council, which took place on Tuesday, May 19th. In a memo to staff, Loverro attributes his resignation to a risk he took earlier this year, but doesn’t explain what it was. “Our mission is certainly not easy, nor for the faint of heart, and risk-taking is part of the job description,” he writes. “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. 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.”

Ken Bowersox, who filled the position temporarily when Gerstenmaier was demoted, will take over the role once again now that Loverro is gone. Bowersox is a former astronaut and currently the deputy associate administrator for human exploration.

As the associate administrator for human spaceflight, Loverro oversaw the agency’s Artemis program, the plan to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. Loverro had also been in charge of reorganizing NASA’s plans to help turn low Earth orbit into a more commercial domain. “I want to be clear that the fact that I am taking this step has nothing to do with your performance as an organization nor with the plans we have placed in motion to fulfill our mission,” Loverro wrote in a memo to staff. “If anything, your performance and those plans make everything we have worked for over the past six months more attainable and more certain than ever before. My leaving is because of my personal actions, not anything we have accomplished together.”

It’s a wild time for this kind of change, too, as Loverro has been effectively overseeing NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been developing new private vehicles to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX is set to fly its first two astronauts through the program on May 27th, a little more than a week away. And the timing is not sitting well with some, including Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK) who is the chair of the House subcommittee that oversees NASA.

NASA argues that the change will not affect the program or the mission, and Loverro tells The Verge that his departure has “nothing” to do with Commercial Crew. However he said he could not go into detail about why he left, beyond what he wrote in his memo.

“We have full confidence in the work [program manager] Kathy Lueders and her entire Commercial Crew team have done to bring us here,” NASA’s memo states. “This test flight will be a historic and momentous occasion that will see the return of human spaceflight to our country, and the incredible dedication by the men and women of NASA is what has made this mission possible.”

Update May 19th, 8:00PM ET: This article was updated to include information provided to The Verge from Loverro.

Update May 19th, 4:42PM ET: This article was updated to include information from a memo from Loverro.

Comments

It sounds like he did some kind of bad stuff at the office and resigned because of it. Maybe he had an affair or spread a bad joke or something stupid like that, who knows. The Verge’s insistence on mentioning Trump prominently is strange and frankly absurd, and has nothing to do with this announcement.

You have to filter the shit. Most of their articles throw some political, agenda pushing jab in there.

It looks like Loverro violated (quite possibly without knowing it at the time) the Procurement Integrity Act. This caused an audit by an Inspector General to be started. He’s resigning because of that apparently.

As for the Trump administration being mentioned – its their administration that he’s resigning from as a recent high level appointee, so that’s not unusual – beyond that, for quite some time the President is often behind people getting the ax for political reasons – the firing of a Inspector General (who investigate corruption) for something else entirely last weekend is a good example.

https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-trump-inspectorgeneral-idUSKBN22S0A1

It sounds like he did some kind of bad stuff at the office and resigned because of it. Maybe he had an affair or spread a bad joke or something stupid like that, who knows.

That’s totally not how I read his explanation (look at ones posted by people who are guilty of shenanigans). It really sounds like he’s hinting that he risked choose to go with Blue Origin and SpaceX over Boeing for the Lunar Module because he thought that was the best "technical" choice for an actual NASA mission. He did that over "political" (pissing off Boeing and the congressmen whose districts have Boeing facilities) and "personal" reaons (keeping his job).

That now that choice is bearing fruit (SpaceX launch) he is leaving at the most public time to draw attention to his successful technical decision/legacy – while yielding to the political fallout that inevitably happened afterwards

Here’s the passage I focused on.

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. 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.

That feels a lot more open/honest than typical resignation emails. Usually you get a super upbeat email like Andy Rubin that avoid the elephant in the room or you get an openly defiant email like many congressmen who resign under the cloud of sexual/financial impropriety.

That’s fair, you might be correct on his timing for leaving, but honestly that explanation you quoted seems purposely vague on his part. How was his decision to take the job 6 months ago "a risk"? It seems much less risky to work at vendor-agnostic NASA than to commit to a specific vendor like SpaceX or Blue Origin. (Or maybe I’m reading your comment incorrectly?)

It wasn’t his decision to take the job that a risk… it was the decisions he made during the Artemis Lunar Lander contract selection process that was the risk. Notable… Boeing failed to win any of the three initial contracts that were instead given to SpaceX, BlueOrigins, and Dynetics. One of those designs will be picked for the actual lander… but it also means Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, or ULA definitely cannot build the lunar lander.

Actually if you go to Ars Technica… a new article this morning (May 20) has sources suggesting that he really thought the integrated designed proposed by Boeing was the most technically feasible to do by 2024 as planned (even though NASA never meets it’s time goals). He also saw that Boeings bid wasn’t competitive in many ways (not just in the total cost, but also the design) such that it wasn’t going one of the three finalist, so he secretly tried to help them make their bid be better… even though he was also one of the people "judging" the bids – which is illegal. In the end Boeing still didn’t win the contract with his help, and people found out.

How is The Verge prominently mentioning Trump? His name doesn’t come up in the article at all. The only two references to the administration are:

Loverro resigned on Monday, May 18th, however NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine did not mention the change to Vice President Mike Pence during the meeting of the National Space Council, which took place on Tuesday, May 19th.

The quote from Congresswoman Kendra Horn is also appropriate. She’s the Chair of congressional committee that oversees NASA. If NASA wants anything they have to go through her, so including her comment on Loverro’s resignation is just good journalism. The fact that she gave a negative remark about the current administration isn’t The Verge’s fault.

Some people are obsessed with other people bashing Trump.

How is The Verge prominently mentioning Trump?

Apparently you failed to read the subhead.

You are correct; I completely skipped right over that!

He bet on Boeing and lost.

That was my first thought too. Not sure if the timelines sync up and I could be connecting random dots, but that’s where my mind went.

Betting on Boeing shouldn’t have been risky.

I agree, yet here we are.

Chaos filters down from the top, just as shit travels downhill.

Did he resign or was he "Fired!" ?
Perhaps there was no need to mention his departure to Pence as Pence already knew?
Seems there might be more pressure from the Top to put boots on the moon than anyone at NASA is willing to sign off against.

Baffled as to why the implied hoop-la over ‘the first woman to the moon’. Is it more difficult to put a woman on the moon, or something?

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