Doug Loverro, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.

Updated 1:45 p.m. Eastern with comment from the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.

WASHINGTON — NASA announced Oct. 16 that it has hired Doug Loverro, a former Defense Department official responsible for space policy, to lead its human spaceflight programs.

NASA said that it selected Loverro to be the next associate administrator for human exploration and operations, more than three months after the agency reassigned Bill Gerstenmaier to a senior advisor position. Ken Bowersox, who had been acting associate administrator since that reassignment, will return to his prior position as deputy associate administrator.

Loverro is a newcomer to civil space, but has extensive experience in national security space in the Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and Defense Department. From 2013 until his retirement in 2017 he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. Prior to that, he was executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and deputy program executive officer for space.

Since leaving the Pentagon in 2017 he’s run his own consulting company and has been an outspoken advocate for some national security space initiatives, notably the proposed Space Force. “Space is too vital for the nation to not have a military service devoted to the idea that its singular job is to keep the U.S. in the lead,” he argued in a June 2018 op-ed supporting the Space Force.

NASA announced the hiring at the start of a hearing by the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee on NASA’s Artemis program.

“I have known [Loverro] for many years,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the hearing, including times when Loverro testified before House committees that Bridenstine, a former congressman, served on. “He’s somebody who’s worked in space for a very long time, and very successful in program management.”

That program management experience likely outweighed any lack of experience in NASA programs. Bridenstine had previously stated that he had cast a very wide net in looking for a successor to Gerstenmaier, including agency and industry outsiders.

“His record of bipartisan work, strong program management, and leadership roles in national space policy provide him with a strong foundation to lead NASA’s human exploration and operations programs,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, chief executive and president of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our work with NASA as we journey back to the Moon and eventually to Mars.”

The long time NASA took to hire a successor to Gerstenmaier, who spent more than four decades at the agency, raised questions in the industry about why the process appeared to be dragging out. As recently as Oct. 10, when he appeared with SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk for a media opportunity at SpaceX’s headquarters, Bridenstine suggested a decision was still some time off. “We will come to a point where we settle on a name, but we’re not there yet,” he said then. “That announcement is not months away, it’s weeks away.”

Hiring Loverro is critical since NASA has been deferring decisions on some key issues, like a new launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System as well as the final commercial crew test flights, until a permanent successor to Gersternmaier was in place.

“What I wanted to make sure we didn’t do is set a schedule for launching the SLS rocket specifically, and set a schedule for launching commercial crew specifically, until a new associate administrator for human exploration and operations has had an opportunity to assess” those programs, Bridenstine said at the hearing. “Accountability matters, and if I set the schedule and then they come in later, it might not be a good dynamic for accountability.”

Bridenstine also used the hearing to praise Bowersox for his three months as acting associate administrator. “He’s done just an amazing job,” Bridenstine said. “I’m looking forward to getting Doug Loverro on board and having him and Ken work together to achieve all of the great things we have in stock.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...