An independent review of issues that delayed the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission has revealed broad institutional issues at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. JPL has an unprecedentedly massive workload, and its resources are clearly very meager.
Psyche was originally supposed to release with Artemis 1, on August 29 this year. But a host of problems, including the SLS losing its launch window, conspired to delay the mission. Orbital Mechanics has decreed that Psyche’s next accepted launch window will come in October 2023. So, the agency convened an independent review panel, led by retired Flight Director and former NASA Administrator Tom Young, to do some root cause analysis of the delays. The Sober Board Report (PDF) found that Project Psyche has problems from top to bottom. But she also described Psyche’s problems as just the tip of the visible iceberg – the inevitable consequences of systemic problems throughout JPL.
Following the review board’s report, NASA held an online meeting and press conference. Lori Lichen and Thomas Zurbuchen, the NASA administrators who convened the review board in the first place, attended both meetings for the Question Field and Expand on the sixty-page report.
The agency also published a point-by-point response to the review board’s findings. It’s not controversial—NASA is fully cooperating with the review board, which the agency itself convenes—but it’s a stunning picture of systemic malfunction.
16 Psyche is a main belt asteroid. It’s the largest metallic planet in our solar system: the exposed core of a planet that could be. By itself, 16 Psyche accounts for approximately one percent of the mass of the entire main belt. As such, this piece of metal has immeasurable value, whether you consider it a commodity or a source of scientific data.
NASA decided that the Psyche mission was irreplaceable. Its unique mission, to explore the asteroid of the same name – “a world not of rock or ice but of metal” – cannot slip into another mission. However, Psyche’s mission is in jeopardy, and her problems are starting to get through to other missions as well. And the report is clear: nothing less than a complete overhaul would be enough to set the record straight at JPL.
“The psychology issues are not unique to Psyche. They point to broader institutional issues,” Young said during the city council meeting. First of all, the report showed that JPL is suffering from an unprecedented workload. The lab runs more projects than at any other time in its history, but it is also severely understaffed at every level, from fresh talent to seasoned staff who can mentor others.
One of the main reasons: JPL is bleeding talent for private space companies. They cannot pay engineers enough to retain them, nor attract new employees. It is difficult to overstate the extent of the problem. Saiki Project He literally didn’t have a chief engineer. From the report:
The pandemic has also disrupted Project Psyche, as if it has disrupted everything else. The shutdowns, and then working from home in the post-pandemic work environment, have been utterly disastrous for communication and schedules. Specifically, the report calls the type of “casual conversations” that takes place in a cafeteria or when someone stabs their head over a chat. It turns out that in NASA’s deep collaborative organizational structure, these conversations really matter.
“Canary in the Coal Mine”
JPL throws itself at the scrutiny as if it were dressing a bleeding wound. But there is another, more subtle problem here, which is difficult to name. Psyche’s review showed that JPL experienced a kind of cultural “erosion”, which weakened the organization as a whole.
Space culture, at its most successful and efficient, engages in a kind of no-fault-based review. When someone drops a circuit board or accidentally punches a hole, that person can report the incident to supervisors without fear of retribution. You want to report when and how these issues occur because you need to know Why It happens, in order to make sure it does not happen again.
This kind of extreme transparency is what got us to the moon. It allows us to put satellites like the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit, with confidence that they will work like the documents say they will. But Psyche’s review showed that this culture of trust and transparency is crumbling throughout JPL. Instead, a culture of “problem proof” has taken root. Budget pressures, staffing issues, and telecommuting due to the pandemic have created an environment where work-level employees have been challenged to prove a problem ahead of schedule and/or provide budget relief or to change base plans. Team members experienced skew normalization with regard to understaffing, high stress, improper scheduling, and resistance against worker intuition.”
The agency’s official response welcomed the Board’s findings. Zurbuchen said, “It is our duty to notice problems early — this report is essentially a canary in the coal mine — and address them. Information like this helps us with more than just Psyche, but also for upcoming major missions like Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return.”
In the real Venus
Unfortunately, many of Psyche’s problems were not noticed by NASA authorities in time to prevent the VERITAS mission to Venus from becoming a victim. In its desperate quest to hire the Psyche mission, NASA is delaying the VERITAS probe so VERITAS employees can contribute to the Psyche project. After regretting that their employees were being poached by other companies, they were forced to do it themselves.
“After long deliberation, I must say that we intend to postpone the launch date of Veritas to no later than 2031,” said Laurie Glaese, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “This delay could offset the workforce imbalance for at least those three years and provide some of the increased funding that will be required to continue Psyche toward a 2023 launch.”
During the annual meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group on Monday, Glaese described the mission’s delay as “probably the most painful thing I’ve had to do in my entire life.” Although it doesn’t conflict with his schedule, VERITAS will now be launching three years later. However, Gilles said, “there were no good options.”
“I understand that you are not responsible for the things that are to be evaluated, it is beyond your control,” Gilles later said, addressing a member of Team Veritas. “I can commit to you and your team by being transparent and working with you.” But that’s all the agency can promise for now.
Next steps for JPL
The report made recommendations to address Psyche’s potentially mission-fatal problems. But she also said frankly that the agency needs to get her house in order by March 2023, because at the moment they are stealing Peter to pay Paul.
In response, JPL is making sweeping changes to the entire reporting structure. But it has also requested more oversight from the California Institute of Technology and NASA. JPL is also establishing new internal recruitment approaches, working with industry partners to support staffing needs and redoubling efforts to foster experienced leadership at all levels.
As for Veritas’ delay, JPL “will resign their management and engineering teams for the mission and release staff to other projects,” NASA said in a statement. In the meantime, scientific teams will continue to receive funding and support. But in a subsequent phone call with reporters, Glaze said Psyche’s mission may need more money than the agency will save by delaying VERITAS.
In any case, Leshin said, JPL will rely on the committee’s recommendations, including reviewing other tasks the lab manages. “We will work through each of our projects, especially larger projects like Clipper and Mars Sample Return, to make sure the lessons learned are applied appropriately.”
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