The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia has opened a criminal investigation of a former top NASA official, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
The grand jury investigation concerns communications between Doug Loverro, then the chief of human spaceflight for NASA, and Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s space and launch division. These discussions occurred early this year, during a blackout period when NASA was taking bids to construct a Human Landing System for the Artemis Moon Program. It is not permissible to interfere with a competition for government contracts.
“Mr. Loverro, who wasn’t part of NASA’s official contracting staff, informed Mr.Chilton that the Chicago aerospace giant was about to be eliminated from the competition based on cost and technical evaluations,” the report states, citing unidentified sources. “Within days, Boeing submitted a revised proposal.”
Loverro resigned from NASA in mid-May, a few weeks after NASA awarded three Human Landing Systems contracts: $579 million to a team led by Blue Origin, $253 million to Dynetics, and $135 million to SpaceX. Boeing and one other bidder did not receive awards.
While this news story brings new information about the criminal investigation, it does not provide much additional detail beyond the broad outlines of what was already known after Loverro resigned in May 2020. Some key questions remain.
One is whether Loverro was acting on his own—or if he had at least the tacit approval of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in reaching out to Boeing. Multiple sources have said Loverro was indeed acting on his own initiative, but this fact probably will not be known until NASA’s Inspector General completes an investigation into the matter. That investigation started earlier this year.
Another question is what Loverro’s motivations were. Were he found to have received kickbacks, Loverro might face jail time. But this does not appear to have been what happened. Rather, several sources told Ars that Loverro believed Boeing’s proposal to launch an integrated landing system on a Space Launch System to the Moon represented the most straightforward approach to landing humans on the Moon by 2024. Therefore, he wanted the company to submit a competitive bid.
Finally, there is the question of what this means for the Artemis Program. For the coming fiscal year, the White House asked for $3.37 billion to accelerate development of the lander in order to make the 2024 goal. The US House’s proposed budget, however, provides only $628.2 million for the lander. A final budget may come later this year, after House and Senate negotiations.