It is almost impossible to imagine any organization other than the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) operating the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is counted as one of NASA’s 10 field centers but technically is a federally funded research and development center that exists primarily to serve the space agency.
In its more than 50 years of existence, JPL has known no other manager; Caltech was testing rockets at the laboratory’s current Pasadena, Calif., site on behalf of the U.S. Army as far back as 1936 — more than two decades before NASA’s creation. JPL has since gone on to pull off some of humankind’s most remarkable technological feats, landing spacecraft on nearby planets and sending other probes to the farthest reaches of the solar system. Two such spacecraft — the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes launched in 1977 — are approaching the heliopause, the boundary between the sun’s magnetic influence and interstellar space. Landings on Mars have become almost routine for JPL; it’s sometimes easy to forget that the red planet is 55 million kilometers away at its closest, which translates into several months of travel time for spacecraft and several minutes of transmission time for radio command signals.
Now comes news that NASA is seeking information from other organizations — universities, nonprofits and even industrial companies — that might be qualified to run the storied institution. It’s not inconceivable that someone other than Caltech could take over JPL: Lockheed Martin Corp. comes to mind, not only because it is the lab’s primary industrial partner on planetary missions but also because it operates the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, another federally funded research and development center. Having a major JPL contractor operating the lab would raise obvious conflict of interest concerns, but even if that weren’t the case it would be a huge surprise if Caltech is unseated, particularly in light of the favorable ratings it receives from its NASA customer.
NASA’s request for information appears to have been prompted by a report from the agency’s inspector general, which reminded the agency of federal rules requiring a revalidation of the need for all federally funded research and development centers every five years — the typical length of their operating contracts. The report said that without a thorough assessment of other potential JPL operators the agency cannot be assured that it is getting the best value for its money.
While noting JPL’s many accomplishments over the years, the report criticized the lab’s biggest development program, the Mars Science Laboratory, as well as a related overpayment of incentive fees to Caltech. It’s true that the Mars Science Laboratory — a small-truck-size rover packed with scientific instruments — is over budget and behind schedule, although that’s the rule rather than the exception when it comes to development programs of this size and complexity. For Mars missions, delays and associated cost overruns are magnified by the fact that, for reasons related to orbital geometry, opportunities to launch to the red planet come just once every two years; once a window is missed, it’s a long wait for the next one regardless of when the project is ready.
That said, the inspector general’s report appears to have uncovered a flaw in NASA’s methodology for evaluating Caltech’s overall job performance, which determines the university’s eligibility for incentive payments under its JPL management contract. According to the report, NASA gave equal weight to individual projects regardless of scale, meaning Caltech’s struggles on the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory — and the resulting consequences for NASA — were effectively canceled out in the scoring by its solid performance on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a far smaller endeavor. As a result, Caltech received $16 million in award fees that it probably was not entitled to, the inspector general’s report concluded.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable that Caltech’s performance grades on individual projects should be weighted in proportion to their scale. This should be relatively easy to fix, and in any case the problem rests with NASA’s scoring system, not with Caltech.
As for requesting information on other organizations interested in running JPL, that’s probably a healthy thing. If nothing else, it reminds Caltech that renewal every five years of its JPL management contract — which pays $1.5 billion annually, plus award fees — is not a foregone conclusion, which at the very least should keep the university on its toes and on the lookout for more efficient ways to run the lab. And in the unlikely event that a credible challenger emerges as a result of NASA’s inquiry, Caltech’s incentive to do more for less will be that much greater, with the biggest winner ultimately being the U.S. taxpayer.