• The WTF Files

NASA's human-spaceflight chief resigns a week before SpaceX Launch 2020

In a shock to the rocket-and-spaceship industry, NASA's human-spaceflight chief abruptly resigned 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 — the 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 includes Demo-2. 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 midway 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."

The executive's departure from NASA on Monday was by all accounts 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 worked.

Loverro did not specify the nature of his perceived mistake in his email to employees or to the press. Though the 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, said 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 NASA representative 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 oversees 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 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."