NASA’s head of human spaceflight quit on Monday, just days before the first commercial mission to take astronauts to the International Space Station.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will become the first commercial company to fly astronauts to the ISS in a flight that will also be the first from US soil since 2011.
Doug Loverro, who took up the job as head of human spaceflight in October 2019, resigned on Monday saying he ‘took a risk’ and made a mistake.
NASA didn’t give a reason for Loverro’s sudden departure, but an anonymous source told the Washington Post that he broke a rule when buying a spacecraft for the Artemis mission to land the first woman on the Moon by the end of the decade.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoing final processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, USA, 11 April 2020 (issued 18 April 2020), in preparation for the Demo-2 launch
Doug Loverro, who took up the job as head of human spaceflight in October 2019, resigned on Monday saying he ‘took a risk’ and made a mistake
Announcing his resignation Loverro wrote to NASA staff, saying that he ‘took a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfil our mission’, adding that it was a ‘personal risk’ and no reflection on the team.
NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will take off in the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center on May 27.
The space agency confirmed the flight would be going ahead as planned.
As part of the ‘Demo-2’ mission, Behnken and Hurley will dock with the International Space Station (ISS) about 19 hours later and remain there for up to four months.
An artist’s illustration of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docking to the International Space Station
In a letter to staff, seen by SpaceRef, Loverro wrote: ‘I took a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfil 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.’
He went on to say: ‘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 fulfil our mission.’
‘My leaving is because of my personal actions, not anything we have accomplished together,’ he said.
Before joining NASA in October 2019 Loverro was a longtime Pentagon official.
Earlier in the year NASA selected three companies to develop lunar landers as part of the Artemis mission – one of which will land the first woman on the Moon.
The companies were Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, SpaceX owned by Elon Musk and a smaller company called Dynetics from Huntsville Alabama.
NASA hasn’t confirmed if Loverro’s resignation is actually linked to those agreements or what the ‘mistake’ he mentioned in his letter to staff was.
SpaceX, which has received billions of dollars from NASA since the late 2000s, has been supplying cargo to the ISS since 2012 and will now send crew to the station.
NASA said in a statement that the mission to the ISS would go ahead as planned despite the resignation of Loverro.
‘Lifting off from Launch Pad 39A atop a specially instrumented Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon will accelerate its two passengers to approximately 17,000 mph and put it on an intercept course with the International Space Station,’ NASA says.
‘Once in orbit, the crew and SpaceX mission control will verify the spacecraft is performing as intended by testing the environmental control system, the displays and control system and the maneuvering thrusters, among other things.
‘In about 24 hours, Crew Dragon will be in position to rendezvous and dock with the space station.
Bob Behnken (L) and Doug Hurley (R) participating in a fully integrated test of critical crew flight hardware
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (rear) and Doug Hurley (front) participating in SpaceX’s flight simulator of launch and docking of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, earlier this year
‘The spacecraft is designed to do this autonomously but astronauts aboard the spacecraft and the station will be diligently monitoring approach and docking and can take control of the spacecraft if necessary.’
NASA said the test flight would be a historic and momentous occasion that will see the return of human spaceflight to the US.
Deputy head of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, will take over from Loverro in an acting capacity to oversee the launch of the Demo-2 mission.
With the Demo-2 mission, SpaceX is helping to establish itself as the leader in the private space sector thanks to its reusable rocket, the Falcon 9.
SpaceX has now overtaken aerospace behemoth Boeing, whose uncrewed demonstration of its Starliner spacecraft failed last year.
The Demo-2 mission follows uncrewed mission Demo-1, launched in March 2019, which acted as a successful test-run for the Crew Dragon craft.
SpaceX also said it would be delaying the next launch of its next Starlink satellites, which aims to boost global internet connectivity, to focus on Demo-2 during a period of adverse weather.
SpaceX technicians work on the next Crew Dragon Demo-2 craft as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tour SpaceX headquarters in October last year
NASA and SpaceX are targeting May 27 for the launch of Demo-2, the first launch of NASA astronauts from the U.S. since 2011
‘Standing down from the Starlink mission, due to tropical storm Arthur, until after launch of Crew Demo-2,’ it tweeted on Monday.
NASA and SpaceX had said they would press ahead with plans to launch astronauts into space from US soil for the first time in nearly a decade later on this month, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The launch will be the first crewed launch from the United States to orbit since NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011 – since then, the US has had to pay to put its astronauts on Russian Soyuz rockets to give its astronauts rides to the ISS.
SpaceX chief Elon Musk speaks during a press conference after the launch of SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo mission at the Kennedy Space Center
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters earlier this month that the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will be only the fifth class of US spacecraft to take humans into orbit, after the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
‘If you look globally, this will be the ninth time in history when we put humans on a brand new spacecraft,’ said Bridenstine.
‘We’re going to do it here in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m going to tell you this is a high priority mission for the United States of America,’ he said.
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard takes off during the Demo-1 mission last year
Behnken and Hurley will reportedly arrive at their launchpad in a car made by Tesla, one of Musk’s other companies – the Model X SUV.
Hurley, who was the pilot on the last Space Shuttle mission, admitted it was ‘disappointing’ that the launch won’t be a public affair, as crowds are discouraged from gathering at Cape Canaveral to as part of measures to prevent coronavirus infection.
‘We won’t have the luxury of our family and friends being there at Kennedy to watch the launch but it’s obviously, the right thing to do in the current environment,’ he said.
Half of SpaceX’s engineers have been teleworking, and on the day of the launch, NASA personnel in the mission control room will be spaced six feet (two meters) apart.
SPACEX CREW DRAGON CAPSULE MEASURES 20FT AND CAN CARRY 7 ASTRONAUTS AT A TIME
The March 2 test, the first launch of U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil in eight years, will inform the system design and operations (Artist’s impression)
The capsule measures about 20 feet tall by 12 feet in diameter, and will carry up to 7 astronauts at a time.
The Crew Dragon features an advanced emergency escape system (which was tested earlier this year) to swiftly carry astronauts to safety if something were to go wrong, experiencing about the same G-forces as a ride at Disneyland.
It also has an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) that provides a comfortable and safe environment for crew members.
Crew Dragon’s displays will provide real-time information on the state of the spacecraft’s capabilities, showing everything from Dragon’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board.
Those CRS-2 Dragon missions will use ‘propulsive’ landings, where the capsule lands on a landing pad using its SuperDraco thrusters rather than splashing down in the ocean.
That will allow NASA faster access to the cargo returned by those spacecraft, and also build up experience for propulsive landings of crewed Dragon spacecraft.