An independent review of issues that delayed the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission revealed institutional issues at JPL that delayed the launch of another mission being developed there.
On November 4, NASA released the report from an independent review panel commissioned by NASA after the Psyche mission missed its launch window earlier this year. The mission, to the main metal belt asteroid of the same name, has suffered delays in developing and testing its flight program, and is now scheduled for launch in October 2023.
The independent review, led by retired aviation executive Tom Young, found that while delays in development and testing were to blame for the August 2022 launch window mission, they weren’t the only problems Psyche encountered. The council said other unresolved software issues, incomplete validation and verification of vehicle systems, and “inadequate planning and preparation for mission operations” could also cause delays.
The board linked these problems to more substantive issues with managing not only Psyche’s mission but also others at JPL. “Psychological issues are not unique to Psyche. An online meeting convened by NASA to present the findings of the report,” Young said.
He said JPL had an “unprecedented workload” of projects and the board found that the lab’s resources were very tight, particularly in terms of key technical expertise. “There is a significant imbalance today between the workload and the resources available at JPL,” he said. “This imbalance was a root cause of the psyche issues and, in our opinion, negatively affects all JPL flight project activities.”
The report highlighted challenges in hiring and retaining skilled engineers, as JPL competes with airlines offering higher salaries, particularly in engineering and software development. “Therefore, there is a perfect storm, with external competitive pressures and internal demand pressures affecting the availability of these vital resources,” the report stated.
Young said the board found there was a lack of communication, with engineers struggling to draw managers’ attention to problems while senior leadership failed to “penetrate the project adequately” and spot problems earlier.
The pandemic, and the shift to remote and hybrid work, have also contributed to the problems of Psyche in particular and JPL in general. The Board concluded that limited personal interactions reduce opportunities for informal communications such as “attendance” meetings. The report noted that members of the Psyche team “shared valuable information about the project” at a Christmas party in late 2021, their first in-person gathering in more than 18 months.
The Board made several recommendations to JPL to improve recruitment and retention of key technical staff, increase project oversight and reconsider existing mixed business policies. He also called on the California Institute of Technology, which manages NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to improve its knowledge of JPL’s activities.
NASA said it is implementing Psyche’s own recommendations, including increasing the number of personnel on the mission and improving oversight. Young said the board believes the agency has drawn up a plan for the mission that will support its launch in October.
Laurie Lichen, who took over as director of JPL in May, said she accepted the board’s finding about the lab. “Psyche has uncovered inefficiencies that need to be addressed, and we are committed to strengthening our organization and operations in a purpose-driven and forward-looking manner,” she said. This included reconsidering hybrid approaches to working, though she said JPL would not return to pre-pandemic policies.
Implementation of these recommendations will affect another NASA mission being developed at JPL. Laurie Glaese, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, noted that Psyche was the second discovery-class mission operated by JPL that experienced launch delays, after the Mars InSight rover. The next mission of the discovery class managed by JPL is Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Terrestrial, and Spectroscopy, or VERITAS, the orbiting Venus mission the agency chose to develop in 2021.
“After long deliberation, I must say that we intend to postpone the date of preparation for the launch of Veritas to no later than 2031,” she said in a three-year gaffe. “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.”
In a subsequent call with reporters, Glaese said the agency was still working to determine the cost of delaying Psyche because the mission was considering changes to the mission’s operation with new launch and arrival dates. She said Psyche will need more money than the agency will save by postponing VERITAS.
Lichin said JPL will use the commission’s recommendations to review the status of other JPL-led missions, such as Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return. “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.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate director of science, said he has been in “active discussions” with the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, two other centers that lead NASA’s science missions, to see if any kind of NASA-led review is needed. United States to manage their missions.
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