Why did NASA's human spaceflight chief Doug Loverro abruptly resign?

Former NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Douglas Loverro speaks at a NASA town hall event on Dec. 3, 2019, at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Former NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Douglas Loverro speaks at a NASA town hall event on Dec. 3, 2019, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. (Image credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA)

NASA has yet to offer an explanation as to exactly why the agency's human spaceflight chief abruptly resigned on the eve of a historic launch. 

Doug Loverro served as the associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate for less than seven months before he resigned from the position on Monday (May 18) — nine days before two NASA astronauts are scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on a test flight to the International Space Station. 

According to Space Policy Online, in a statement emailed to the NASA workforce, Loverro said that he took a "risk" and "made a mistake," but he did not elaborate on what exactly prompted his resignation. Space.com spoke with Loverro to try to get an explanation about the nature of the "mistake." 

While he would not disclose the circumstances that led to his resignation, Loverro did take the opportunity to dispel some rumors propagating on the internet. 

Related: NASA's human spaceflight chief optimistic for moon 2024 goals

It's not about commercial

So, while we don't yet know exactly what happened at NASA's human spaceflight division, we at least know what didn't happen, according to Loverro. 

First, Loverro said that the reason for his resignation had nothing to do with NASA's commercial crew program, which has contracted SpaceX and Boeing to begin launching astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The timing of his resignation just before SpaceX's first crewed test flight to the ISS has led to some speculation that Loverro's "mistake" was related to the upcoming launch.  

"The biggest false rumor, the one that I was most concerned about and I think the agency was most concerned about … was that there was a problem with the commercial crew launch coming up next week that I resigned over, and nothing could be further from the truth," Loverro told Space.com. He added that there has been "no indication" that the launch could be delayed because of the shakeup at NASA. 

What about Artemis?

Space.com also asked if the resignation could have been prompted by a recent audit by NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG). On March 25, the OIG announced on Twitter that it was opening an audit into NASA's acquisition strategy for its Artemis program, which aims to put humans on the moon in 2024. 

"That IG report is an acquisition-related report that was started by the IG just the way they start other things, they select certain things to look into and to see how the agency is doing," Loverro said. "It's so completely different. It happens to be contemporaneous, but it's completely different than anything that would happen that affected this."

Several media outlets have speculated that Loverro's mistake may have happened during the procurement process for human landing systems that will take NASA's Artemis astronauts to the moon. On April 30, about two weeks before Loverro resigned, NASA announced the three teams the agency has selected to develop the Artemis moon landers: SpaceX, a Blue Origin-led team and Dynetics.

In the process of awarding those contracts, Ars Technica reported that several sources said Loverro may have violated the Procurement Integrity Act, which "prohibits the release of source selection and contractor bid or proposal information" before a contract is awarded, according to the Department of Justice. In other words, those sources alleged that Loverro may have unlawfully leaked information about the companies selected to build human landing systems before the decision was publicly announced.

Loverro declined to comment on that theory, adding that he could only address the other two rumors about the commercial crew program and the OIG investigation. When asked if the circumstances of his resignation will be made public in the future, pending an investigation into his mistake, Loverro said, "I can't tell you that. I don't know that there will ever be any more details." Space.com reached out to NASA for comment, and a spokesperson said they "are unable to discuss personnel issues"

Whatever Loverro did, it apparently had something to do with NASA's Artemis program — and with the lofty goal of putting humans on the moon in brand-new spacecraft just four years from now. 

"Look, I made the calls I thought I needed to make in order to go ahead and make the mission happen. And obviously the mission was to get to the moon by 2024," Loverro said. "So, I don't think I can deny that there is a difference between the things that I chose to do and the need to go ahead and get there in 2024." 

Loverro added that he does not foresee his resignation affecting the ambitious timeline for Artemis. 

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Hanneke Weitering
Contributing expert

Hanneke Weitering is a multimedia journalist in the Pacific Northwest reporting on the future of aviation at FutureFlight.aero and Aviation International News and was previously the Editor for Spaceflight and Astronomy news here at Space.com. As an editor with over 10 years of experience in science journalism she has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.