The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is making progress addressing institutional problems that led to the delay of an asteroid mission, the lab’s director says.

Speaking at a meeting last week of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), Laurie Leshin, who took over as director of JPL last May, said she is seeing progress in efforts to implement several recommendations made by an independent panel last fall that examined the delay in the Psyche mission.

That independent review, commissioned after software testing issues caused the Psyche mission to miss its launch last year, found what the panel’s chairman, Tom Young, called “broader institutional issues” at JPL linked to a heavy workload of missions and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Among those issues was a shift to remote or hybrid work during the pandemic. “The hybrid work environment was a really big one,” Leshin said, noting it affected the “informal safety net” created when staff is on site and can walk around, helping identify issues that may not show up in more formal meetings.

“We have changed our policy around remote work,” she said at the Feb. 27 meeting. “I had 5,000 JPLers on lab last Wednesday, so we are back.”

Another issue has been hiring and retention. The review noted that JPL had to compete with the growing demand for engineers from aerospace companies, causing a loss of expertise as lab personnel took more lucrative jobs in industry.

“Those hiring and retention issues have really subsided,” she said, stating that 41 JPL employees who had left the lab had returned in the last six months. “The grass is maybe not always as green as people would anticipate it is.”

JPL is also making progress on several other issues, including with management at the lab and governance by Caltech, which runs JPL for NASA. “All of that leadership, both at the project level, directorate level and at the lab level, have changed now since the major issues were there,” she said. “We have a significantly higher level of engagement.”

The lab is still working to handle its workload, which includes two flagship-level missions, Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return, as well as Psyche and smaller missions. Psyche remains on schedule for a revised October 2023 launch, Leshin said. “It is fully on track for that launch. We are watching it extremely closely.”

NASA Headquarters is also closely watching the progress on Psyche. “We had some issues with staff availability at JPL, and JPL and the project, as well as Headquarters, are closely monitoring that situation,” said Joan Salute, associate director of NASA’s planetary science division, during a Feb. 28 meeting of the agency’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee. “Psyche has been fully staffed for a while now, but we keep our ears open in case that changes.”

The delay in Psyche’s launch, along with the findings of the independent review, led NASA to delay the launch of a Venus mission being led by JPL, VERITAS, by three years. It also caused NASA to remove Janus, a smallsat asteroid mission that was to launch with Psyche; Janus is looking at alternative missions the spacecraft can perform.

Salute said NASA is also closely monitoring work on Europa Clipper, which is scheduled to launch in October 2024. The mission remains on schedule, she said, although it has had to revise its assembly schedule several times based on the timing of instruments to be installed on the spacecraft.

Leshin said JPL planned to brief Young’s committee in April to provide an update on the lab’s implementation of its recommendations. That will be followed by a more comprehensive response, which she said could help other parts of the agency and even industry as they try to find a new post-pandemic normal range of operations.

“This isn’t just a JPL challenge,” she said. “Everybody’s feeling it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...