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NASA head of manned space abruptly resigns

Turf war? Doug Loverro, the head of NASA’s manned spaceflight program who was brought in seven months ago to replace the fired William Gerstenmaier, has abruptly resigned.

Loverro, who previously worked at the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and launches military satellites, said he was leaving the agency “with a very, very heavy heart” after making some “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,” Loverro wrote. “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.

Reached by phone, Loverro declined to offer specifics about his “mistake,” but said his departure is not due to a disagreement with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine or any safety concerns about next week’s launch.

You can read Loverro’s resignation letter here.

This is very strange. Loverro was clearly ruffling feathers in the big space contractor world with his increasing effort to reduce NASA’s reliance on its SLS rocket for its deep space manned program. I can’t help but wonder, in this brutal Washington culture we live in today that is willing to frame people for sometimes the most petty reasons, if some blackmail was involved here.

I doubt his resignation will change much. NASA will continue to reduce its reliance on SLS, simply because the rocket is a very expensive, over-priced, behind-schedule lemon that will never get us anywhere.

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14 comments

  • Rose

    NASA OIG:
    * https://twitter.com/NASAOIG/status/1242889226590588928
    “OIG announces audit of NASA’s acquisition strategy for the Artemis missions to include landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024.”

  • Rose

    Oops, I hadn’t noticed that OIG tweet was dated Mar 25, 2020.

    So perhaps relevant, but not nearly as suggestive as if it had been announced today.

  • Rose: I tried to email you directly today, but the email address you give is not yours, but belongs to someone else who emailed me to say “I often receive emails for an American woman who seems not to know her own email address.”

    If you are going to keep commenting, you need to provide your real email address, which is not seen by anyone but me.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Watched the Starship SN4 static-fire test yesterday, where there was some kind of leak that led to a rather persistent fire. It is apparently difficult to build rockets inside tents in a field, and meet clean-room level quality of build. Who could have guessed?

    I recall seeing pictures of stainless-steel (?) Atlas boosters by the dozen lined up in a General Dynamics factory circa 1960s, and they looked like they were made of polished glass, compared to anything I have seen at Boca Chica. Is SpaceX heading down a blind alley? Yes, I know those boosters were pressurized balloons, but they sure looked flawless.

    I am bringing this up because I have heard so much about the advanced friction-stir welding techniques pioneered by the SLS project, which apparently produce superb results, and I wonder if they or a derivative are the answer to SpaceX’s requirements? But can you build an SLS in a field, which Elon seems to think is required to meet the volume and costs he has targeted? Maybe SLS will not end up being a total waste?

  • Brian

    Ray Van Dune, as for Starship, these are prototypes, extremely rapid prototypes with iteration so fast it’s hard to keep up with for us watchers, followed also by rapid testing. Spacex is building and iterating the rocket first and building the factory around it as needed. They have already taken down some of the early tents and put up other bigger tents in their place or buildings such as the High Bay that they use to stack the prototype. It’s all about speed, once they get to a production version they will probably build more permanent structures.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Brian. Good reminders re rapid prototyping. I have some experience with those concepts from software dev.

    But I note that EM constantly restates that the development of the manufacturing process is the 1000% harder part. Is he not starting on that until he has a solid design? His comments to date seem to say no – trying do do both. Is that your interpretation too?

    Ps. Years ago I got to see the massive AN-225 Mryia transport at an air show. Everyone was amazed including me – then I walked back under the tail and looked up at the sheet metal fairing the hull to the horizontal tail plane. Jesus H. Christ! It was about lawnmower-repair-shop quality, not even as good as Starship SN Zero! I understand the AC was completely rebuilt several years ago, thank God!

  • Dick Eagleson

    SLS, like F9, is made of aluminum alloy. Friction stir welding works well with aluminum. But friction stir welding works by getting the metal to a superplastic, but not molten, state by rubbing both sides of the seam with a rotating tool. The temperatures involved are much lower for aluminum than they would be for stainless steel. Friction stir welding tools for aluminum can be made of steel. To friction stir weld stainless steel would require a tool made of something with a significantly higher melting point than steel along with the ability to hold hardness and dimension and also not break at such an elevated temperature under the very high pressure and high torque conditions of friction stir welding. I don’t know that any material having all those characteristics actually exists.

  • pzatchok

    Plus NASA spent a billion on a new facility just to do the welding. And had to rebuild it before production even began.

    How many dirty prototypes can Space X build and fly with that billion dollars?

  • Tom

    I believe the Space Shuttle became victim to the idea of “having a solid design”. It was prevented from being the evolving, versitile space transportation system that its designers envisioned it to be. The shuttle never “evolved” to the degree nor the tempo that its designers were hoping. Thus it became “vendor locked”, expensive and then obsolete. Having two spectacular failures involving the loss of life along the way only sped up it’s retirement. It was doomed because it didn’t evolve.

    SpaceX’s methodology is not about producing a “solid design” but more about producing effective systems that solve current problems all while embracing change at a pace that keeps their “design” productive, cost-effective and in-demand. Certainly a novel way to approach the problems of space access and which few competing enterprises can emulate. Having a vision on the scale of Mr. Musk’s makes building rockets in tents out in a wasteland perfectly feasible and a joy to see.

  • Brian

    Ray Van Dune, Spacex is also iterating the production line along side the Starship, in fact the production line iterations and the systems for it has to come first, in order to produce these Prototypes in such rapid succession in this case a matter of 2 or 3 weeks. If each one of these prototypes were being built bespoke it would take years and years to develop Starship.

  • Tom

    BTW .. My first thought on reading the details of the article regarding Mr. Loverro’s situaiton is that he must have accepted some gift, accomodation or indulgence from a NASA vendor or other entity that exceeded limits. The manner of his exit and explanation is indicative of someone leaving due to a significant policy violation.

  • John Pickens

    I also note that the SLS has spent more on building, and re-building the frigging LAUNCH TOWER for SLS than Spacex spent on the entire development and production process for the Falcon 9.

    https://spacenews.com/report-finds-delays-and-cost-overruns-in-sls-mobile-launch-platform-development/

    Yes, thats Billion with a B dollars spent for a launch platform which is expected to maybe someday launch up to FOUR launches!

  • Jim Davis

    I can’t help but wonder, in this brutal Washington culture we live in today that is willing to frame people for sometimes the most petty reasons, if some blackmail was involved here.

    This is totally irresponsible, Bob. How would like it if someone speculated that your actions or positions on issues weren’t because of principle, but because you were being blackmailed? You’re diminishing Loverro by implying he can’t be acting according to his own principles or for his own reasons.

    Loverro probably abruptly resigned for the same reasons anyone abruptly resigns. A promise was made to him that wasn’t kept or he delivered an ultimatum to no effect. I doubt there is anything sinister going on here.

  • Jim Davis: If I was being blackmailed I’d be glad, because it would mean someone might look into the bad things the blackmailer is doing.

    Washington has become a truly ugly place, far uglier than it ever was in the past (and it was never pretty). Bad dishonest things now go on there all the time, sometime in the plain light of day, and no one is ever punished for them. I would not be surprised if more of the same occurred here.

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