Why did NASA's head of human spaceflight suddenly resign?

People resigning or being dismissed from the Trump administration is obviously nothing new these days. We’ve seen virtually unprecedented rates of turnover for the past couple of years. But the most recent departure comes at a very strange time and leaves a bit of a mystery in its wake. The resignation of Doug Loverro, NASA’s chief of human space exploration programs, was announced last night. He’d only been on the job for six months, but that’s not the only strange part of this event. We’re only eight days away from the first launch of astronauts into orbit from an American spaceport on a rocket built in America in over a decade. Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation is prepared to launch two astronauts into orbit on a Falcon 9 Crew Dragon flight on May 27th, but Loverro won’t be the one overseeing this historic mission. (The Verge)

The head of NASA’s human exploration program, Doug Loverro, has resigned less than six months after assuming the position within the agency, according to a NASA memo. The drastic change in leadership comes just a week before NASA will launch its first astronauts from the US in nearly a decade, on top of SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spacecraft.

This is the second time during the Trump administration that this role has been in turmoil. In July 2019, NASA demoted the original person in this position, William Gerstenmaier, who had been serving as the associate administrator for human exploration at NASA for nearly 15 years. Loverro took over the position in December after a long search by NASA, but now his tenure has been cut short.

“Loverro hit the ground running this year and has made significant progress in his time at NASA,” a memo to NASA employees states. “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.

Loverro is being replaced by Ken Bowersox, who previously held the position as an interim director last year, so we’ll at least have someone with experience in the program taking charge. The real question here is why Loverro would depart at such a pivotal moment in America’s manned spaceflight operations.

The problem is that Loverro isn’t saying… at least not yet. He sent a memo out to the staff assuring them that his departure had nothing to do with the performance of the operation, but was because of his “personal actions.” He’s citing a “risk he took earlier this year” as the determining factor. Loverro was quite vague in this description. Here’s the key portion of his memo that’s raising eyebrows:

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.”

That’s kind of tough to parse, isn’t it? He chooses to cite three categories of “risks” that can be taken… technical, political or personal. Since he already expressed full confidence in the program as it stands, it doesn’t seem likely that he’s talking about a technical risk. But at the same time, he says he took the risk because he judged it necessary to fulfill the mission. What other sort of a risk would directly impact the mission of the program?

And why would he include “political” in the list? NASA is one of the least politicized operations in the federal government. (Which is really saying something these days.) Did he do something that he thought would anger Donald Trump, leading him to resign before he could be fired? Or was it “suggested” to him in private that he should consider resigning so he could look like he was leaving on his own terms?

The only other option he offers is a “personal” risk. That could mean anything from an affair with a subordinate to a gambling problem, but none of those options would have been “necessary to fulfill the mission.”

In any event, with Bowersox in charge, we should still be on track for SpaceX to pull off this launch next week assuming the weather cooperates. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be taking the first ride on the Crew Dragon and I hope that you all keep them in your prayers. The vehicle has been nearly flawless throughout the testing phase and, for the first time, we have a capsule with the ability to jettison during ascent in the event of an abort command, returning for a soft landing. Let’s hope they don’t need to test that feature on this flight.