The head of NASA’s human spaceflight office has resigned just one week before the agency plans to launch astronauts from American soil for the first time in nearly a decade, setting off alarm in Congress about how the turmoil might disrupt the historic mission.
Douglas Loverro had served as the associate administrator for the human exploration and operations mission directorate for just seven months. He said he was leaving the agency “with a very, very heavy heart” after making a “mistake” during his tenure, according to a letter to the workforce obtained by POLITICO.
“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,” wrote Loverro, who previously worked at the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and launches military satellites. “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. ”
“My leaving is because of my personal actions, not anything we accomplished together,” he continued.
While the agency officially announced Loverro’s departure as a resignation, two industry officials told POLITICO that he was pushed out by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
But, reached by phone, Loverro insisted his departure is not due to a disagreement with Bridenstine or any safety concerns about next week’s launch. He also declined to offer specifics about his “mistake.”
Loverro took over the job in October after his predecessor, William Gerstenmaier, was demoted and eventually left the agency.
Bridenstine praised Loverro’s work, saying in a note to staff obtained by POLITICO that he “has moved us closer to accomplishing our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024.”
Top lawmakers demanded answers late Tuesday about Loverro’s departure, especially since it occurred just eight days before the maiden voyage set for May 27 of two astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
“I am deeply concerned over this sudden resignation, especially given its timing,” Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), the chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee, said 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 overseas NASA, we need answers,” she concluded.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who chairs the science panel, was “shocked” by the development but said in a statement that “I trust that NASA Administrator Bridenstine will ensure that the right decision is made as to whether or not to delay the launch attempt.”
“Beyond that, Mr. Loverro’s resignation is another troubling indication that the Artemis Moon-Mars initiative is still not on stable footing,” she added. “I look forward to clarification from NASA as to the reasons for this latest personnel action.”
The journey next week to the International Space Station from Florida’s Cape Canaveral will be the first from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011.
It is unclear what, if any, impact the shake-up will have on the mission. NASA did not weigh in publicly as of late Tuesday and SpaceX did not return multiple requests for comment.
Replacing Loverro in an acting capacity is Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who has flown to space six times and is now the deputy associate administrator in the human spaceflight office.