WSJ: Feds Open Criminal Probe Into Loverro-Boeing Discussions

WSJ: Feds Open Criminal Probe Into Loverro-Boeing Discussions

The Wall Street Journal reports that federal prosecutors have opened a criminal probe into discussions between Doug Loverro, formerly at NASA, and Boeing’s Jim Chilton when Boeing was bidding for a contract to build a system to take astronauts to the lunar surface. Loverro abruptly resigned from NASA in May saying he had made a mistake and took full responsibility, but not disclosing any of the details.

Doug Loverro. Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Loverro joined NASA in December 2019 as head of its human spaceflight programs after a multi-decade career as an Air Force officer working on space programs and later as a civilian in DOD space policy positions.

He succeeded Bill Gerstenmaier, a NASA veteran who led human spaceflight at NASA headquarters for more than a decade after many years at Johnson Space Center. Gerstenmaier was suddenly dismissed from his position by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in July 2019.  Loverro was chosen as his replacement several months later.

Loverro’s primary mandate was to execute the Artemis program to get astronauts back on the lunar surface by 2024, just 5 years away. That directive came from Vice President Mike Pence who told NASA on March 26, 2019 to accelerate its lunar landing plans by four years — 2024 instead of 2028.  That would mean the landing would happen while President Trump was still in office if he was reelected for a second term.

Getting people on the Moon in just 5 years is an extremely challenging goal. Although NASA has been working on a rocket and crew spacecraft to reach lunar orbit for many years, nothing was underway to build the landers needed to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface and back.

NASA decided to use public-private partnerships (PPPs) to build these Human Landing Systems (HLS) following the model used for the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that support the International Space Station. The hope is that PPPs will save time and money and facilitate a new era of commercial enterprise in space and on the Moon.

Loverro arrived at NASA on December 2, three weeks after the HLS bids were submitted and the selection process was underway. The four major companies submitting bids were Boeing, SpaceX, Dynetics, and a “national team” led by Blue Origin (with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper).

According to the WSJ, a grand jury has been investigating whether Loverro had improper conversations with Boeing’s Jim Chilton about that company’s bid. Chilton is Boeing’s Senior Vice President for Space and Launch. Loverro allegedly told Chilton the company was about to lose and Boeing then submitted a revised bid. But it was too late. SpaceX, Dynetics and the Blue Origin team won the contracts on April 30.

NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk was the source selection authority, not Loverro.

Less than three weeks later, Loverro resigned. In a memo to NASA colleagues, Loverro admitted he had taken a risk earlier in the year “because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission,” but now realized it was a “mistake … for which I alone must bear the consequences.”  He later told that he had “no regrets.”

NASA’s Inspector General (IG) began an investigation, but this WSJ report is the first public indication that a grand jury was convened and federal prosecutors are opening a criminal probe.

Boeing did not respond to a request for comment.  Loverro declined to comment.

Vice President Mike Pence told NASA to get astronauts on the Moon by 2024 “by any means necessary” and if NASA could not do it, NASA would have to change, not the goal. Not surprisingly, NASA has become consumed with meeting Pence’s expectations.

Congress is still deciding whether it is a good idea or not, however. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is questioning the whole idea of PPPs, arguing the government, not private companies, should own the systems.  While the goal of returning to the Moon has broad bipartisan support, the accelerated timeline is not as popular, especially with appropriators who have to come up with the money. The House and Senate provided only $600 million of the approximately $1 billion NASA requested for HLS in FY2020. The request for FY2021 is $3.4 billion and the House approved just $628.2 million. The Senate has not acted yet.

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