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Psychological review reveals institutional problems at JPL

Psychological review reveals institutional problems at JPL

WASHINGTON – An independent review of the problems that delayed the launch of NASA’s mission to the asteroid Psyche has revealed institutional problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that have caused the agency to delay the launch of another mission being developed there.

NASA announced on November 4 independent audit committee report commissioned by NASA after the Psyche mission missed its launch earlier this year. The mission, to the main metal asteroid of the same name, suffered delays in developing and testing its flight software, and it is now slated for an October 2023 launch.

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

The board linked those problems to more fundamental issues with the management of not only the Psyche mission, but others at JPL as well. “Psyche’s problems are not unique to Psyche. They point to 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 that the lab’s resources are being depleted, particularly in key technical expertise. “Today there is a huge imbalance between the workload and the available resources at JPL,” he said. “This imbalance was clearly the root cause of the problems with Psyche and, in our estimation, is adversely affecting all flight project activities at JPL.”

The report highlighted challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified engineers as JPL competes with airlines that offer higher salaries, particularly in engineering and software development. “Thus, there is a perfect storm, with external competitive pressures and internal demand pressures affecting the availability of these critical resources,” the report said.

Young said the board found there was a lack of communication, as engineers struggled to bring problems to managers’ attention, while senior management failed to “penetrate enough” into the project and catch problems early.

The pandemic and the shift to remote and hybrid work have also contributed to problems with Psyche in particular and JPL in general. Limited personal interactions, the board concluded, reduce informal communication opportunities such as meetings. The report said members of the Psyche team “shared valuable information about the project” at a Christmas party in late 2021, their first in-person gathering in more than 18 months.

The board made several recommendations for JPL to improve the hiring and retention of key technical personnel, increase project oversight, and review its current hybrid operation policies. He also called on Caltech, which runs JPL for NASA, to improve its knowledge of JPL activities.

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

Laurie Leshin, who took over as director of JPL in May, said she accepted the board’s findings about the lab. “Psyche has identified gaps that we need to address, and we are committed to strengthening our organization and our processes in a purpose-driven and forward-looking manner,” she said. That included reconsidering hybrid approaches to work, though she said JPL would not return to pre-pandemic policies.

Implementation of these recommendations will affect another NASA mission being developed at JPL. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, noted that Psyche is the second Discovery-class mission led by JPL to experience launch delays, after the InSight Mars lander. The next Discovery-class mission led by JPL is Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy, or VERITAS, the Venus orbiter mission the agency has selected for development in 2021.

“After much consideration, I have to say that we intend to push back the VERITAS launch readiness date to no earlier than 2031,” she said, a three-year slip. “This delay can offset the workforce imbalance for at least those three years and provide some of the increased funding that will be needed to continue Psyche toward that 2023 launch.”

Speaking to reporters later, Glaze said the agency was still working to determine the cost of Psyche’s delay as the mission studied changes to mission operations with the new launch and arrival dates. She said Psychia will need more money than the agency will save by shelving VERITAS.

Leshin said JPL will use the panel’s recommendations to review the status of other JPL-led missions, such as Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return. “We will work through each of our projects, especially large ones like Clipper and Mars Sample Return, to make sure the lessons learned are applied appropriately.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s assistant administrator for science, said he was in “active discussions” with Goddard Spaceflight and Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, two other centers that lead NASA’s science missions, to see if there a sort of NASA headquarters. a guided review of their mission management is needed.



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