NASA’s plan to get back to the moon by 2024 faces many challenges: Earth’s gravity well, the vacuum of space, and now the Department of Justice.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors in Washington DC are investigating the resignation of NASA’s top human spaceflight executive, Doug Loverro, earlier this year. While details remain murky, it is linked to how the space agency sought to purchase new vehicles to bring future astronauts from space down to the surface of the moon.
With subpoenas arriving at NASA and Boeing, we have an idea of how serious this episode might become. When the government hires private contractors, it will enter into a “blackout” period where communications must take place in official channels. This is to prevent one company from gaining an advantage over the other due to hidden contacts with government officials, whether accidental or corrupt.
During the moon lander blackout, Loverro contacted a Boeing executive, Jim Chilton, and explained concerns the space agency had about the company’s lander design. When Boeing submitted an updated bid, the NASA managers evaluating the proposals connected the dots and uncovered the back-channel talks, leading Loverro to step down—and Boeing to be excluded from the lander program.
Loverro has publicly portrayed the move as a risk he took to ensure the space agency could realize the ambitious goals of the Artemis lunar return program. If so, that someone with deep experience in government procurement felt breaking basic contracting rules was the only way to get a successful moon lander built is a harsh judgment on the designs that were ultimately selected.
Or it may be a judgment on military and space procurement culture writ large. The US is still dealing with the fallout from two Boeing procurement scandals: A quid pro quo in a deal to buy new aerial tankers was uncovered in 2001, putting a former Pentagon executive and Boeing’s then-CFO in jail and beginning two decades of problems with the contract. More relevant to space readers, in 1999 Boeing was caught with some 66,000 pages of documents detailing Lockheed Martin’s plans to bid on US Air Force rockets.
These two scandals ended with Boeing paying the US government a record $615 million in 2006. Fights over Boeing and Lockheed’s trade secrets were squashed when they chose to combine their troubled space divisions into United Launch Alliance, still the leading provider of rockets to the US military.
Yet allegations of favoritism have continued, typically from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the only firm to challenge ULA’s monopoly in launch. In 2014, one of Musk’s earliest controversial tweets alleged a quid pro quo after a Pentagon official who awarded ULA a major contract was hired by one of the ULA’s key suppliers; the allegations were denied by those involved. Shortly thereafter, SpaceX obtained a still sealed settlement that would allow it to bid on government contracts. But SpaceX is still alleging favoritism in a lawsuit over the Pentagon’s current efforts to buy rockets.
That’s the scene-setting for the current Justice Department investigation, which has preempted a separate inquiry by the space agency’s inspector general. While they could come nothing, even that could mean delays for the Artemis program if Boeing can challenge its exclusion from the lander bidding, though a Boeing spokesperson told Aviation Week earlier this year that it had no plans to dispute the award.
In the near term, the space agency is hoping lawmakers will deliver some $3.4 billion this year to build its final moon lander. The House enacted less than a fifth of that amount, leaving NASA hoping that the Senate will pony up additional money. Legal uncertainty is unlikely to help.