NASA human spaceflight chief resigns in surprise move before historic astronaut launch

SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule is one step closer to being mated to its Falcon 9 launcher. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX and NASA are eight days away from the first astronaut launch on U.S. soil in nearly a decade. There’s one big hurdle left to clear before the launch can get the go-ahead: it has to pass a flight readiness review. Typically that is led by the person in charge of NASA’s human exploration program.

However, that person — Doug Loverro — has resigned from NASA, effective May 18. According to an agency memo, Loverro resigned just six months after he took on the role. This marks the second time that such a big change in NASA leadership has occurred under the Trump administration. In July 2019, William Gerstenmaier was demoted from his position as NASA’s associate administrator from human exploration. Loverro took over his position several months later. 

The space agency addressed the sudden departure of Loverro to its employees via a company-wide email. In the memo, it states, Loverro made significant progress in his time at NASA. “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,” the memo reads. “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.”

Ken Bowersox, a five-time shuttle flier and former commander of the International Space Station, will take over for Loverro. Bowersox assumed the role after Gerstenmaier was demoted last year. He is the current deputy associate administrator for human exploration and is familiar with the commercial crew program and the upcoming SpaceX Crew Dragon flight.

That flight is scheduled for May 27 but first has to pass a series of readiness reviews. The first of which is scheduled for Thursday, May 21. Loverro was supposed to lead the flight readiness review, and with his departure, Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator will lead the charge. If the Crew Dragon and its Falcon 9 launcher are cleared for flight, the launch will proceed as planned.

What effect will this change in leadership have on the upcoming launch? According to NASA, not much. “We have full confidence in the work [that commercial crew program manager] Kathy Lueders, and her entire Commercial Crew team have done to bring us here,” the 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.”

In addition to the commercial crew program, Loverro was also head of the agency’s burgeoning Artemis program. NASA has plans to go back to the moon and do it sustainably, with the ultimate goal of sending the next man and the first woman to the moon by 2024. A lofty goal for sure.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly to the space station aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft on May 27. Credit: NASA

In a memo to agency staff, Loverro explained that his departure had nothing to do with the work NASA was accomplishing. “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. “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.”

He also explained that his abrupt departure had to do with a decision he made and a risk he took earlier in the year. “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,” he wrote. “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.”

Only time will tell how much this will or will not affect the upcoming crew launch, but as of now, it’s full-steam ahead.

Amy Thompson: I write about space, science, and future tech.
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