NASA’s associate administrator for the human exploration and operations mission directorate, Doug Loverro, has abruptly and unexpectedly resigned—after just seven months in that role and just over a week before the first manned test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
That SpaceX test is slated to be the first time NASA has dispatched astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. territory since 2011, when the ageing Space Shuttle was retired and the agency began relying on rented seats on Soyuz rockets operated by Russian counterpart RosCosmos. The bad timing, however, may be coincidental. Per NPR, Loverro hinted that he had made a major but unspecified mistake: a “risk” he thought was necessary to accelerate Donald Trump’s mandate to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by the year 2024, the Artemis Program. In a farewell message to NASA staff, NPR wrote, Loverro referred to this as a “mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences.”
“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 added. “My leaving is because of my personal actions, not anything we have accomplished together.”
According to NPR, a source “familiar with the situation” said the issue had to do with a violation of NASA rules or regulations. As TechCrunch noted, there was no public indication before the resignation announcement that Loverro had recently made an error costly enough to end his career at the agency.
NASA’s Space Launch System Program, which is critical to Artemis and was overseen by Loverro, has experienced major cost overruns. Its first test launch, originally scheduled for 2017, was recently delayed yet again from March 2021 to November 2021. Those issues predated Loverro’s tenure, though the SLS delays have threatened to push back the planned Moon landing date of 2024 until after Trump’s possible second term in office.
Critics have warned that Trump appears to be pushing hard for NASA to accelerate Artemis from its original timeline of 2028—which could have disastrous consequences if it results in shoddy work—just to claim a second Moon landing as part of his legacy. Vice President Mike Pence threatened last year that if NASA fails to make it happen by 2024, the Trump administration will “change the organization, not the mission.”
The Washington Post, citing two sources aware of the circumstances surrounding Loverro’s departure, reported that he may have broken procurement rules in the course of NASA’s efforts to develop a lunar lander for the 2024 mission. Loverro told the paper “It had nothing to do with Commercial Crew,” the program which the SpaceX Crew Dragon project falls under. He added that “It had to do with moving fast on Artemis, and I don’t want to characterize it in any more detail than that.”
There were no prior indications of Loverro’s departure at a meeting earlier on Tuesday between Pence and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, according to the Post. Politico reported that Loverro denied any disagreements with Bridenstine or safety issues with the SpaceX launch played any role in his resignation; two industry officials instead told the site that the official reason was a pretext for Bridenstine to have Loverro removed.
If that is true, it speaks to an alarming rate at which Bridenstine is burning through human spaceflight chiefs. Loverro was the third NASA employee to serve as associate administrator of the human exploration program in the last year.
William Gerstenmaier, a NASA veteran who had held the position since 2005, was reassigned to a special adviser role in July 2019, reportedly amid internal tension over whether he was trying to delay the White House’s efforts to kill Gateway, a planned Moon-orbiting space station that would serve as a launching point for lunar operations. At the time, Ars Technica reported some Trump officials suspected he was pushing to keep those plans going so that they would be saved in a hypothetical future Democratic administration, which could delay the 2024 timetable. Additional conflicts with between Gersteinmaier and Bridenstine reportedly included the delays with the SLS.
Gersteinmaier later resigned from NASA and joined SpaceX. Former astronaut Ken Bowersox, who became acting associate administrator upon Gerstenmaier’s reassignment and until Loverro got the job in October 2019, will again hold the role in an acting capacity.
“We have full confidence in the work [program manager] Kathy Lueders and her entire Commercial Crew team have done to bring us here,” NASA wrote in a memo to staff, according to the Verge. “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.”
“I am deeply concerned over this sudden resignation, especially given its timing,” Representative Kendra Horn, the Democratic chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee space subcommittee, 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.”