WASHINGTON — An independent review has concluded NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission is back on track for a launch this October after software problems, exacerbated by institutional issues at JPL, delayed its launch last year.
NASA released June 5 a report by the independent review board (IRB) commissioned by the agency last year after Psyche missed two launch windows in 2022 because of delays in the development and testing of flight software. That board concluded last fall that Psyche had suffered from software development programs but also broader issues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including a strained workforce and poor internal communications.
The new report assessed how both the mission and JPL had implemented recommendations the board made in its earlier report, concluding that both had made major progress.
“The IRB believes the response to our Psyche project and JPL institution findings and recommendations to be excellent,” Tom Young, chair of the IRB, said in a call with reporters. “We believe that Psyche is on a positive course for an October 2023 launch.”
For Psyche, that work involved reorganizing the project around the remaining work ahead of launch and bringing in experienced leadership, said Laurie Leshin, director of JPL. The project is now “nearly through” all the remaining software testing.
With 18 weeks remaining before launch, preparations are going well, with seven weeks of schedule margin. “The project, I’m pleased to report, is green across the board, and on track for our October launch,” she said.
The delay does come at some additional cost to NASA, which officials on the call said is still being assessed. A May 31 report by the Government Accountability Office assessing major NASA projects noted that the cost of Psyche, projected at just under $1 billion at the time of its confirmation in 2019, has grown to nearly $1.13 billion as of January 2023. The report added that new estimate was under review because of potentially higher operations costs linked to a longer travel time caused by the delay.
JPL, meanwhile, has been working on other recommendations related to workforce and communications that have been in progress for months. That includes a new hybrid work policy that requires most people to work on site three days a week. The lab has improved hiring and retention efforts, bringing in what Leshin called “hundreds” of experienced employees, more than 50 of which are people who previously worked at JPL and decided to come back.
“We’ve overcome our workforce issues, our missions are staffed and we are much stronger today,” she said.
The lessons from Psyche are being applied to other missions at JPL. Leshin said that the Europa Clipper mission, under development for an October 2024 launch to study the icy moon of Jupiter, underwent a reorganization like that for Psyche to focus on the remaining work.
One recommendation that the independent review board found inadequate was improving the standing review board (SRB) process, an outside board for missions like Psyche designed to find issues like those Psyche encountered and communicate them to project and NASA leadership. The timing of the SRB reviews did not allow them to effectively catch the issues that delayed the mission, the independent panel concluded.
Young said an SRB can be “an extraordinarily credible project management tool” provided it has the right people and meets frequently enough to timely identify problems. “It’s something that needed a lot of attention” for mission in general, and not just Psyche, he concluded.
He said NASA agreed that the SRB process needs to be strengthened, and it is a work in progress. “I have high expectations that we are going to get this SRB process under control so we really can count on it to be a check and a balance on flight projects.”
Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, agreed that the SRB process can be improved. “The intent here is to take the findings and really overhaul, or re-look at, the SRB processes across all of NASA.”
There are no plans to do “full-up” reviews of other centers working on NASA science missions, said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for science, given the time and effort involved. “What we are doing is we’re making a very concerted effort to ensure that all of the lessons learned and best practices are being openly passed to all of the other centers,” she said.
Fox, who took the job in February, said she was pleased with the progress to get Psyche back on track and to improve JPL. “We certainly don’t feel that we can rest or even believe that the issues have gone away or will go away,” she said. “What we really feel here is that we’ve started to change, and this change must continue.”