Douglas Loverro, the head of human spaceflight for NASA, abruptly resigned on Monday, after six months on the job and days before the agency is scheduled to launch astronauts for the first time since the space shuttle retired in 2011.
Loverro’s resignation comes at a critical time — two days before he was to lead a critical “launch readiness review” meeting that would determine whether SpaceX should proceed to launch two NASA astronauts on a test mission to the International Space Station.
A longtime Pentagon official, Loverro was seen as a calm and immensely capable executive who would not only help the agency restore human spaceflight from U.S. soil as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, but also push NASA to meet a White House mandate to return astronauts to the moon by 2024.
Two people with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the personnel matter said his resignation was spurred when Loverro broke a rule during NASA’s recent procurement of a spacecraft capable of landing humans on the moon.
In an email he wrote to top NASA officials that was obtained by The Washington Post, Loverro wrote that NASA’s mission “is certainly not easy, nor for the faint of heart, and risk-taking is part of the job description.”
He wrote that he took “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.”
In an interview, Loverro declined to discuss the exact details of why he resigned.
“It had nothing to do with commercial crew,” he said. “It had to do with moving fast on Artemis, and I don’t want to characterize it in any more detail than that.” Artemis is NASA’s program to return people to the moon.
Last month, NASA awarded three contracts, worth nearly $1 billion combined, to a team led by Blue Origin, a team led by Dynetics and to SpaceX. (Blue Origin is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.)
Loverro said there were “no sour grapes” and that he holds “NASA in great respect. I hope they can continue on everything they started and will follow through on their plans.”
On May 27, SpaceX is scheduled to launch two NASA astronauts on a test flight of the Dragon spacecraft to the space station. In a statement Tuesday, NASA indicated the launch would proceed without delay.
“Next week will mark the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight with the launch of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station,” the agency 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.”
The statement did not say what led to Loverro’s resignation.
Earlier in the day, Vice President Pence praised NASA for “renewing American leadership in space” and said he was looking forward to the launch. He and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine gave no indication of the shakeup.
The news sent shock waves through the space community, and there were concerns over whether NASA should proceed with the launch in the wake of such a tumultuous development.
In a statement to The Post, Bridenstine said he had “full confidence” in Kathy Lueders, the NASA Commercial Crew Program manager. He added that the agency’s “leadership, SpaceX and NASA’s team of engineers and experienced human spaceflight professionals have reviewed the Commercial Crew Program regularly for years.”
Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, will chair the readiness review meeting on Thursday. Loverro said he thought “it was absolutely safe to proceed.” He added he had “100 percent faith” in Jurczyk. “I would trust him with every ounce of that mission’s performance.”
NASA said that Ken Bowersox, currently the deputy associate administrator for human exploration, would take over Loverro’s job in an acting capacity. Bowersox previously held the position after Bridenstine demoted William Gerstenmaier, a NASA veteran who later resigned and now works for SpaceX.