Psyche review finds institutional issues at JPL
WASHINGTON — An independent investigation into issues that delayed the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission revealed institutional problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, causing the agency to delay the launch of another mission being developed there.
NASA released Nov. 4 the report of an independent assessment committee commissioned by NASA after the Psyche mission missed the launch window earlier this year. The mission, to the main belt metal asteroid of the same name, encountered delays in the development and testing of the flight software, and now slated for launch in October 2023.
The independent review, chaired by retired aerospace director Tom Young, found that while development and testing delays were the cause of the mission’s August 2022 launch window, these weren’t the only issues Psyche had. encountered. The board said other unresolved software issues, incomplete verification and validation of vehicle systems, and “inadequate planning and preparation for mission operations” could also have caused delays.
The board linked those issues to more fundamental issues with not only the management of the Psyche mission itself, but that of others at JPL as well. “The Psyche problem is not unique to Psyche. They are indicative of broader institutional issues,” Young said at an online town hall meeting held by NASA to present the report’s findings.
JPL, he said, has an “unprecedented workload” of projects, and the board found that the lab’s resources were scarce, particularly in key technical expertise. “There is a big imbalance between the workload and the resources available at JPL today,” he said. “This imbalance was clearly a cause of the Psyche issues and, in our view, negatively impacts all flight project activities at JPL.”
The report highlighted challenges in hiring and retaining skilled engineers, as JPL competes with aerospace companies that offer higher salaries, particularly in engineering and software development. “So it’s a perfect storm, with external competitive pressures and internal demand pressures affecting the availability of these critical resources,” the report said.
Young said the board found there was a lack of communication as engineers struggled to bring issues to the attention of managers, while senior leadership failed to “get enough about” on the project and identify issues earlier. to trace.
The pandemic and the shift to remote and hybrid work have also contributed to the problems with Psyche in particular and JPL in general. Limited face-to-face interactions, the board concluded, reduce informal communication opportunities such as “walk-in” meetings. The report noted that Psyche team members “exchanged valuable project information” 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 the hiring and retention of technically key personnel, increase project oversight and review the current hybrid employment policy. It also called on Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA, to improve its knowledge of JPL operations.
NASA said it is implementing recommendations specific to Psyche, including increasing staffing for the mission and improving surveillance. Young said the board believes the agency has developed a plan for the mission that will support an October launch.
Laurie Leshin, who took over as director of JPL in May, said she accepted the board’s finding about the lab. “Psyche has identified shortcomings that we need to address, and we are committed to strengthening our organization and processes in a purposeful and forward-looking manner,” she said. That included revisiting hybrid work approaches, though she said JPL wouldn’t go back to pre-pandemic policies.
Implementing those recommendations will impact another NASA mission being developed at JPL. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, noted that Psyche was the second Discovery-class mission run by JPL that was delayed in launch, after the InSight Mars lander. JPL’s next Discovery-class mission is Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy, or VERITAS, a Venus orbiter mission the agency has selected for development in 2021.
“After much deliberation, I must say that we intend to postpone the VERITAS launch date to no earlier than 2031,” she said, a three-year slip. “This postponement could both offset the workforce imbalance for at least those three years and provide some of the increased funding needed to propel Psyche to that launch in 2023.”
In a later conversation with reporters, Glaze said the agency was still in the process of determining the cost of the Psyche delay as the mission is studying changes in the mission’s operation with the new launch and arrival dates. She said Psyche will need more money than what the agency will save by delaying VERITAS.
Leshin said JPL will use the panel’s recommendations to assess the status of other JPL-led missions, such as Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return. “We’re going to work on all our projects, especially the big ones like Clipper and Mars Sample Return, to make sure the lessons learned are applied appropriately.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said he was in “active discussions” with the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, two other centers that lead NASA science missions, to see if any kind of NASA Headquarters-led assessment is required of the management of their missions.
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