Finding balance within the space ecosystem: Q&A with JPL Director Laurie Leshin

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In May, a new director took the reins of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The storied lab is home to many milestone-making spacecraft that have plumbed our solar system, but not without some missteps along the way.

Laurie Leshin, Jet Propulsion Laboratory director. Credit: JPL

Laurie Leshin is the first woman to serve as JPL director, a role that includes serving as vice president at the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA.

Leshin is a well-known geochemist and space scientist, an active co-investigator for two instruments on NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. She brings to JPL skills honed in academia and government, including senior NASA positions.

Barely after setting foot in the door, Leshin faced a major spacecraft launch delay due to a software setback with a high-profile asteroid mission.

She is also impacted by perplexing supply chain issues that can impair JPL’s capacity to better gauge project costs. Cost overruns in JPL programs have dogged the lab in the past, and she intends to take seriously better stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Toss into the management dilemma mix for Leshin is JPL’s need to appraise a return-to-lab posture contrasted with remote work by employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard to build, equip and test spacecraft from home.

As the head of a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC), Leshin manages a special relationship with NASA. The space agency requires JPL to operate in the public interest, with objectivity and independence, be free from organizational conflicts of interest, and fully disclose its affairs to NASA.

Now the helmswoman at JPL, Leshin sees opportunities to leverage JPL’s leadership in robotic space exploration and other areas. She advocates having the lab branch out beyond traditional collaborators, partners, and colleagues to embrace today’s non-traditional ecosystem of space players and providers.

Leshin spoke with SpaceNews about what she envisions in coming years as she scopes out and fine-tunes the revered laboratory’s capabilities.

Is ‘first woman director of JPL’ a moniker that’s tiring or important to you?

It is important to me, and I take seriously the opportunity that it presents. That being said, I’m not just the director for women; I am the director for everyone. Once you reach these positions, you’ve got to use them to kick down doors for people, light the way and rewire the system to help make it possible for more to follow.

When you say rewire, in the larger picture, what new directions do you want to take JPL?

JPL has an incredibly storied history with extraordinary achievements. You don’t want to break that. You want to continue to grow it. We start from a very strong foundation, but we start in a moment where there are many new opportunities.

My biggest observation is that the space ecosystem has changed so much in the last decade. How do we continue to position JPL, given that new ecosystem? How do we partner more often and differently? How do we fly more often, not only when there are massive flagship missions, which is our sweet spot? How do we take advantage of new capabilities, especially around launch, new materials, and 3-D printing, to launch technologies more frequently into the space environment and explore more often?

Define what you see as that “space ecosystem.”

The traditional space ecosystem is the traditional players in aerospace. Then there’s the science community itself which is diversifying a lot. More universities are playing in the space game than ever. On the industry side, we’ve got a lot more folks thinking about space as a place to do business. So it’s really about branching out beyond our traditional collaborators, partners and colleagues.

I’ve seen some reports that you are going to take on escalating mission costs. How’s that going to go?

You have to take our stewardship of taxpayer resources seriously. We need to do better on the front end, ensuring we’re estimating costs effectively. We need to do better at scaling our appetite to the resources available. Leadership is often about balance. You’ve got to figure out how to respect the need to be cost-knowledgeable and cost-constrained while trying to push the frontiers of technology and knowledge.

Part of our job is to be on the frontier. We do things that are first-of-a-kind. Sometimes it can be hard to predict costs. I am committed to embracing that balancing act more overtly.

Cost overruns dot the lab’s history, including the Perseverance and Curiosity Mars rovers. Do you see any common threads among those more-costly-than-thought missions?

If there were an easy answer, it would have been changed. I don’t think it’s easy, and I wouldn’t want to portray it as such.

Right now, we are staring at a lot of supply chain challenges. Even when we build a spacecraft in-house at JPL, most of the parts are built elsewhere. We contract for most of the pieces. We’re seeing more no-bids from contractor partners than we’ve ever seen before. We’re seeing bids come in higher and delivery times being much longer. That has a real impact, especially when your cost models are based on historical data.

What are the implications?

Supply chain challenges make you want to buy things earlier. This means you are in an earlier part of the design-life cycle, and maybe not quite as smart about what you need to buy, so you probably want to hedge your bets a little. There’s a lot of complexity in how that drives the system and connects to our ability to predict cost based on historical models.

The towering core of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is shown in the storied Spacecraft Assembly Facility at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

On that score, I have yet to see a price tag for the JPL Mars Sample Return project. Is there a bottom-line cost number?

NASA makes a cost commitment at Key Decision Point C, which is about a year from now. The program is still in Phase A, and about ready to go into Phase B. This is the year when we’re going to get serious about estimating the cost.

So there’s no dollar number for Mars Sample Return yet to deliver select samples back to Earth in the 2030s?

Not yet. It would be premature, but it will surely have a “b” [for billion] in front of that cost number. We’re trying to make sure when we do make a commitment, that it’s a strong one. We’ve all been through missions where that hasn’t been the case. We’re pushing hard for the 2028 launch; to do that, we need to understand the cost.

Cost aside, there is some public concern that Mars samples brought back to Earth might threaten our planet’s biosphere. What’s your view?

I think the only thing to do is to be as transparent as possible so that people can understand our commitment to keeping folks safe. But also so they understand the science is telling us that it’s highly, highly unlikely that anything there would be extant life – something currently alive – in the samples as the environment at the martian surface is extremely harsh.

Scientists worry the expense of Mars Sample Return will delay other projects like the proposed mission to Uranus.

We understand that when we overrun a cost commitment, it impacts downstream missions. Outer planet missions are complicated to plan. We’re excited to be diving into the Uranus orbiter and probe. It’s an unprecedented situation now to be building two large missions, the Europa Clipper and the Mars Sample Return, at the same time. Once Clipper launches some two years away, I think there will absolutely be a capability to ramp up on Uranus. Also, sticking to the 2028 launch date for Mars Sample Return helps that wedge open up for the Uranus orbiter and probe.

JPL’s asteroid-bound Psyche mission won’t launch this year due to software glitches. What’s at the heart of the decision to postpone?

Set to launch in August 2022, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft will use four Hall thrusters to propel itself to the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, using solar electric propulsion. Two thrusters are visible beneath red round protective covers, after being integrated into the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

It’s a miss on our part. Within a few weeks of taking on my JPL position, it was apparent that we were not going to make the launch date. We immediately told NASA headquarters and they quickly released it to the public. I think that was exactly the right thing to do. We were extremely transparent as we dug into the issue.

We’re about to hear within the next couple of months from the independent review board. Not to pre-suppose their findings, I think they will say it was a little bit of COVID in terms of the team being communicative up and down the line as they needed to be. We were not aware of the depth of the challenge until it was too late to fix it and make the launch date. So that is a problem…a problem we’re committed to fixing.

I think the board will also say there’s no fundamental technical reason that the spacecraft can’t fly in 2023, as there are launch opportunities.

JPL’s 2018 MarCo technology demo missions pushed the envelope on the use of cubesats for deep solace exploration. Is that an area JPL will further develop?

I think there’s an enormous opportunity for smaller spacecraft, in the inner solar system especially. But in general, I don’t think JPL should be in the business of building a ton of cubesats. There are providers out there who can work with us on those things. But I do think we should be enabling the science community to pursue science goals.

I think it’s very interesting, maybe not cubesats in this case, but potentially it could be with larger cubesats coming along, to start thinking differently about the outer solar system. The next big frontier is a more sustained exploration of the outer solar system. What’s very enabling for science is figuring out certain technologies and capabilities to start flying there more frequently with smaller things. It’s not well formulated yet on my part, I will admit, but this is the kind of thing JPL should do. How do we figure out changing the paradigm — more sustained exploration — in the outer solar system?

Any other focus areas for you as you look at JPL’s portfolio?

There are exciting decadal surveys in Earth science, astrophysics and in planetary, huge opportunities within NASA and for JPL. There’s work on the Carbon Mapper, which is an entirely philanthropically-funded mission to look at methane plumes and understand who intentionally is over-polluting with methane. We will provide a state-of-the-art imaging spectrometer. Then there’s the Surface Water and Ocean Topography spacecraft, the SWOT mission. It will help us understand and fully inventory Earth’s surface water for the first time; not just the oceans but all of the freshwater. Amazingly enough, our data about that is not complete.

JPL, like the rest of the world, was impacted by the COVID pandemic. Where are you now in dealing with the pandemic and moving forward?

The JPL campus is buzzing. People are back, and we’ve been back since May. We quickly figured out how to bring back people building spacecraft since you can’t do that from home. But overall, we were pretty hybrid for a long time. Now that we’re open, we have established temporary hybrid work agreements with our employees. We’re learning as we go. It feels like a big science experiment that we’re trying to understand. In November, we’re going to do a big check-in across the lab and see if we need to make adjustments. Yes, the lab is buzzing here but with much less of a parking problem.

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.