Commercial crew launch preparations continue despite leadership shakeup

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Updated 7 p.m. Eastern with new time for post-Flight Readiness Review briefing.

WASHINGTON — Preparations for the launch of a SpaceX commercial crew test flight with two NASA astronauts on board are continuing despite the unexpected departure of the head of the agency’s overall human spaceflight program.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arrived at the Kennedy Space Center May 20 ahead of their launch on the Demo-2 mission, also called DM-2, currently scheduled for May 27. They will carry out some final preflight checks of the Crew Dragon vehicle and other systems in the coming days.

“We do have a lot of exciting activities over the next seven days,” Behnken said in a brief press conference at the Shuttle Landing Facility runway where the plane carrying him and Behnken landed. That includes testing the pressure suits they’ll wear on the mission as well as going through the prelaunch activities. “That’s just to polish the team one more time prior to the launch.”

Neither the astronauts nor NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who greeted the astronauts when they arrived, mentioned the surprising departure May 19 of Doug Loverro, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations. Loverro’s portfolio included the commercial crew program, as well as the International Space Station and human exploration programs like the Space Launch System and Orion.

Loverro told some news outlets that his departure had nothing to do with the commercial crew program, but declined to say what “mistake” — the word he used in a memo to agency staff — led to his resignation. Industry sources suggest that Loverro may have run afoul of procurement regulations during the review of Human Landing System proposals to develop lunar landers for the Artemis program.

His absence, though, will be felt in the final preparations for the Demo-2 mission. Loverro was to chair a flight readiness review scheduled for May 21. Instead, Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, will lead that review. Both Jurczyk and Bridenstine will participate in a post-review press conference, now scheduled for May 22 because the review was not completed by the end of the day May 21.

Bridenstine, in a May 19 memo to agency staff announcing Loverro’s departure, said launch preparations would continue. “We have full confidence in the work [commercial crew program manager] Kathy Lueders and her entire Commercial Crew team have done to bring us here,” he wrote.

Demo-2 rocket on the pad
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft on top arrived at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on the morning of May 21. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

But Loverro’s departure has worried some, including a key member of Congress. “I was shocked to hear that the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program had abruptly resigned just days before NASA plans to launch its critical DM-2 crewed mission to the International Space Station, and I trust that NASA Administrator Bridenstine will ensure that the right decision is made as to whether or not to delay the launch attempt,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, said in a May 20 statement.

Others, though, are unfazed. Among them is Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who later worked at SpaceX and is now a professor at the University of Southern California. He noted that Ken “Sox” Bowersox, also a former NASA astronaut who worked for a time at SpaceX before later returning to the agency, is stepping in as the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“Timing on this is not good, but I’d be a lot more concerned if it weren’t for the fact that Sox is more than capable of overseeing this important week in human spaceflight,” Reisman said. “His deep experience at NASA and SpaceX makes him the ideal replacement for Loverro, actually.”

Another mitigating factor is that the prelaunch preparations have been going smoothly. “There’s still work to be done,” Phil McAlister of NASA Headquarters said of Demo-2 preparations at a May 14 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee. “We’re still finishing up some final testing. There’s still some documents we have to review.”

He was, though, optimistic that all the preparations will be completed in time. “All the open work has a plan for closure,” he said. “At this point, we think we’ve got a shot” for launching on May 27.

Members of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, meeting May 15, agreed that launch preparations appeared to be going well. “The commercial crew program is tracking a list of open work that must be closed to committing to launch, which is not unlike any space launch,” said Paul Hill, a member of the panel. “By all appearances, they are marching deliberately through the normal process.”

Hill said SpaceX should be “commended” for their progress, but warned about not rushing through the final steps before launch. “Now is the time to be on alert for ‘go fever.’ So much work has gone into being this close to a launch, it can be difficult to resist the pressure to accept some risk or trivialize some concern with less rigor in the decision making.”