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NASA human spaceflight chief resigns with historic SpaceX launch days away

NBC News logo NBC News 5/19/2020 Mike Wall, Space.com
a man wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Image: Doug Loverro © Bill Ingalls Image: Doug Loverro

Doug Loverro, NASA's chief of human spaceflight, resigned from his post Monday after less than a year on the job, the agency announced Tuesday.

Loverro's resignation as associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate is a stunning development, as the agency counts down to the first orbital crew launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, which is scheduled to take place on May 27.

Loverro's former deputy, former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox, has taken over HEO in an acting capacity and will therefore oversee Demo-2, the first crewed mission of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. Demo-2, which will send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS), is scheduled to lift off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida next week.

Related: SpaceX's historic Demo-2 mission explained in 13 steps

No crewed mission has launched to orbit from the United States since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011. Since then, the space agency has relied completely on Russian Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to get its astronauts to and from the ISS.

If all goes well with Demo-2, SpaceX will be clear to start flying operational missions to and from the orbiting lab for NASA. Elon Musk's company holds a $2.6 billion contract with the agency's Commercial Crew Program for six such operational flights.

Loverro's departure continues a string of recent shakeups at the top of HEO.

The division's longtime leader, Bill Gersteinmaier, was reassigned in July 2019. Bowersox then took over as acting HEO chief until Loverro was announced as the successor in October.

The top HEO job comes with high expectations and a lot of pressure. NASA is working to land two astronauts near the moon's south pole in 2024, a tight timeline laid out by the administration of President Donald Trump just last year.

"Loverro hit the ground running this year and has made significant progress in his time at NASA. His leadership of HEO has moved us closer to accomplishing our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024. Loverro has dedicated more than four decades of his life in service to our country, and we thank him for his service and contributions to the agency," NASA officials wrote today in an emailed statement about Loverro's departure.

"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 statement added. "We have full confidence in the work Kathy Lueders and her entire Commercial Crew team have done to bring us here. 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."

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