Psyche review finds institutional problems at JPL

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WASHINGTON — An independent review of problems that delayed the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission uncovered institutional issues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that led the agency to delay the launch of another mission being developed there.

NASA released Nov. 4 the report by an independent review board commissioned by NASA after the Psyche mission missed its launch window earlier this year. The mission, to the metallic main belt asteroid of the same name, suffered delays in development and testing of its flight software, and is now scheduled for launch in October 2023.

The independent review, chaired by retired aerospace executive Tom Young, found that while delays in development and testing were the cause of the mission to mission its August 2022 launch window, they were not the only problems Psyche had encountered. The board said that other unresolved software issues, incomplete verification and validation of vehicle systems, and “insufficient plans and preparation for mission operations” could have also caused a delay.

The board linked those problems to more fundamental issues with the management not just of the Psyche mission itself but also others at JPL. “The Psyche issues are 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 the lab’s resources were stretched thin, particularly in key technical expertise. “There is a large imbalance today between the workload and the available resources at JPL,” he said. “This imbalance was clearly a root cause of the Psyche issues and, in our judgement, adversely affects all flight project activity 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. “Thus, there is a perfect storm, with outside competitive pressures and inside demand pressures affecting the availability of these critical resources,” the report stated.

Young said the board found that there was a lack of communications, as engineers struggled to bring problems to the attention of managers while senior leadership failed to “sufficiently penetrate” the project and detect problems earlier.

The pandemic, and the shift to remote and hybrid work, also contributed to the problems with Psyche in particular and JPL in general. Limited in-person interactions, the board concluded, reduce informal communications opportunities like “drop 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 hiring and retention of key technical personnel, increase oversight of projects and revisit its current hybrid work policies. It also called on Caltech, which runs JPL for NASA, to improve its knowledge of JPL activities.

NASA said it’s implementing recommendations specific to Psyche, including increasing staffing on the mission and improving oversight. Young said the board believes that the agency has developed a plan for the mission that will support a launch next October.

Laurie Leshin, who took over as director of JPL in May, said she accepted the board’s finding about the lab. “Psyche revealed shortcomings that we need to address, and we’re committed to strengthening our organization and our processes in a purpose-driven way and a forward-looking way,” she said. That included revisiting hybrid work approaches, although she said JPL would not go back to pre-pandemic policies.

Implementing those recommendations will affect 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 suffered launch delays, after the InSight Mars lander. The next Discovery-class mission run by JPL is Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy, or VERITAS, a Venus orbiter mission the agency selected for development in 2021.

“After long deliberations, I have to say that we intend to postpone the VERITAS launch readiness date to no earlier than 2031,” she said, a three-year slip. “This postponement can offset both the workforce imbalance for at least those three years and provide some of the increased funding that will be required to continue Psyche towards that 2023 launch.”

In a later call with reporters, Glaze said the agency was still working to determine the cost of the Psyche delay because the mission was studying changes of operating the mission with the new launch and arrival dates. She said Psyche will need more money than what the agency will save by postponing VERITAS.

Leshin said JPL will use the recommendations of the panel to review the status of other JPL-led missions, like Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return. “We are going to be working through each and every one of our projects, especially the big ones like Clipper and Mars Sample Return, to make sure the lessons learned are appropriately applied.”

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 review is required of the management of their missions.