Head of NASA Human Spaceflight Resigns on Eve of SpaceX Crew Dragon Flight

Douglas Loverro (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The head of NASA’s human spaceflight program has resigned three days before a flight readiness review (FRR) for the first human spaceflight from U.S. soil in nearly nine years.

Douglas Loverro, associate administrator for the human exploration and operations (HEO), resigned on Monday — nine days before a Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley and aboard is scheduled to be launched by a Falcon 9 rocket on May 27.

Loverro, who took on the job in December, was to have presided over a two-day review set to begin this Thursday on whether to go ahead with the crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Loverro would have made the final go/no decision.

The space agency has named Loverro’s deputy, Ken Bowersox, as his replacement on an acting basis. Bowersox is a five-time space shuttle veteran who commanded the space station during a mission there.

After retiring as an astronaut, Bowersox served as SpaceX’s vice president of astronaut safety. He left the company in late 2011.

In a memo to employees, Loverro said he said he was leaving because of an unidentified mistake he made earlier this year.

Throughout my long government career of over four and a half decades I have always found it to be true that we are sometimes, as leaders, called on to take risks.  Our mission is certainly not easy, nor for the faint of heart, and risk-taking is part of the job description. 

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. 

It’s not clear what risk Loverro took that led to his departure.

On April 30, NASA announced it had awarded study contracts to Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics for a Human Landing System to place astronauts on the moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis program. Boeing and Vivace Corp. did not receive contracts.

It is not clear whether Loverro’s departure is related to that decision. The source selection statement laying out how the proposals were evaluated was signed by NASA associate administrator Stephen Jurczyk.

Prior to that announcement, the NASA Office of Inspector General announced on March 25 that it was conducting an audit of the space agency’s “acquisition strategy for the Artemis missions to include landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024.”

The office has not released the audit yet. Its status is unknown.

Loverro expressed confidence in NASA’s plans for human spaceflight, which include launching crews to the space station aboard SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft and returning astronauts to the moon in the Artemis program.

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.  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.

NASA praised Loverro’s work in its public statement.

“Loverro hit the ground running this year and has made significant progress in his time at NASA. His leadership of HEO has moved us closer to accomplishing our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024,” NASA said.

“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,” the agency added.

Loverro replaced Bill Gerstenmaier, who was demoted to an advisory job in July 2019 over delays in the Artemis lunar program. Gerstenmaier now works at SpaceX as an adviser.

NASA also expressed confidence that Bowersox, who took over from Gerstenmaier before Loverro was brought on, is to the job of taking over the space agency’s human spaceflight program.

“Bowersox has previously led HEO in a time of transition, and NASA has the right leadership in place to continue making progress on the Artemis and Commercial Crew programs,” the space agency said.

NASA also expressed confidence in the Commercial Crew team working with SpaceX and Boeing to restore astronaut launches from the United States.

“We have full confidence in the work [program manager] Kathy Lueders and her entire Commercial Crew team have done to bring us here,” NASA said. “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.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made no mention of Loverro’s departure during a National Space Council meeting chaired by Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday.

The upcoming Crew Dragon mission was discussed extensively during the meeting. Behnken and Hurley appeared remotely by video to express confidence in the upcoming mission and answer questions from the vice president.