An independent review of the problems that delayed the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission also revealed broad institutional problems at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. JPL is struggling with an unprecedented overwhelming workload, and its resources are clearly spread too thinly.
Psyche was originally scheduled to launch with Artemis 1 on August 29 of this year. But a host of problems, including the SLS missing its own launch window, conspired to delay the mission. Orbital Mechanics decrees that the next plausible launch window for Psyche will be in October 2023. So the agency convened an independent review panel headed by a retired aerospace executive and former NASA administrator, Tom Young, to perform a root cause analysis of the delays. The sobering board report (PDF) revealed that Project Psyche is plagued with issues from top to bottom. But he also characterized Psyche’s problems as just the tip of the iceberg – the inevitable consequences of systemic problems throughout JPL.
Following the review panel’s report, NASA hosted an online town hall and press conference. Laurie Leshin and Thomas Zurbuchen, the NASA administrators who convened the review board in the first place, attended both meetings to answer questions and elaborate on the sixty-page report.
The agency also released a point-by-point response to the review panel’s findings. It’s not controversial — NASA is in full cooperation with the review panel, which the agency itself convened — but it’s a startling portrait of systemic dysfunction.
16 Psyche is a main-belt asteroid. It is the largest metallic planetesimal in our solar system: the exposed core of a planet that might have been. 16 Psyche alone accounts for almost one percent of the mass of the entire main belt. As such, this piece of metal has incalculable value, whether you think of it as a commodity or a source of scientific data.
NASA has determined that the Psyche mission is irreplaceable. Its unique mandate, to explore its namesake asteroid – “a world made not of rock or ice but of metal” – cannot simply slip into another mission. Nevertheless, the Psyche mission is in jeopardy and its problems have started to affect other missions as well. And the report is clear: nothing less than a total overhaul will be enough to put things right at JPL.
“Psyche’s problems are not unique to Psyche. They are indicative of broader institutional issues,” Young said at the public meeting. For starters, the report showed that JPL is grappling with an unprecedented workload. Today, the Lab is managing more projects than at any other time in its history. But it also suffers from a severe shortage of staff at all levels, from new talent to seasoned employees who can mentor others.
One of the main reasons: JPL is hemorrhaging talent to private space companies. They can’t pay engineers enough to keep them, or attract new recruits. It’s hard to overstate how much of a problem this is. The Psyche Project literally had no chief engineer. From the report:
The pandemic has also disrupted Project Psyche, as it has disrupted everything. Lockdowns and then working from home in the post-pandemic work environment have been downright disastrous for communication and schedules. Specifically, the report names the type of informal “walk-in conversations” that occur in the cafeteria or when someone sticks their head in to chat. It turns out that in NASA’s deeply collaborative organizational structure, those conversations really matter.
‘Canary in the Coal Mine’
JPL throws itself into auditing as if it were licking a bleeding wound. But there’s another, more subtle issue here that’s harder to name. The journal Psyché showed that the JPL experienced a kind of cultural “erosion”, weakening the institution as a whole.
Aerospace culture in its most effective and successful form engages in a kind of no-fault error review. When someone drops a circuit board or drills an accidental drill hole, that person can report the incident to their supervisors without fear of punishment. You want to report when and how these issues occur because you need to know Why they happen, to make sure they don’t happen again.
This kind of radical transparency is what got us to the Moon. This allows us to put satellites like the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit, confident that they will perform as the documents say. But the Psyche review showed that this culture of trust and transparency is collapsing across JPL. Instead, a culture of “proving there is a problem” has taken hold. Budget pressure, staffing issues and remote working due to the pandemic “created an environment where working-level staff were challenged to prove a problem existed before the schedule and/or the budgetary relief is provided or changes to baseline plans Team members experienced the normalization of deviance with regards to understaffing, high stress, inadequate schedules, and pushback against the intuition of workers. “
The agency’s official response welcomed the council’s findings. Zurbuchen said: “It’s our job to notice problems early – this report is basically a canary in the coal mine – and fix them. Information like this helps us for more than Psyche, but also for key upcoming missions such as Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return.
In Venus, the truth
Unfortunately, NASA authorities failed to notice Psyche’s many problems in time to prevent the VERITAS mission to Venus from becoming a casualty. In its desperation to staff the Psyche mission, NASA delays the VERITAS probe so that VERITAS personnel can contribute to Project Psyche. After complaining about their own staff being poached by other companies, they are forced to do it themselves.
“After much deliberation, I must say that we intend to move the VERITAS launch preparation date to 2031 at the earliest,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “This postponement can both 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.”
At the Venus Exploration Analysis Group’s annual meeting on Monday, Glaze described the mission delay as “probably the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life.” Although it has never missed its schedule, VERITAS will now be launched three years late. However, Glaze said, “there was no good option.”
“I recognize that you are not responsible for the things that are going to be assessed, it’s out of your control,” Glaze said later, speaking to a VERITAS team member. “I can commit to you and your team to be transparent and to work with you.” But that’s about all the agency can promise for now.
Next steps for JPL
The report made recommendations to fix Psyche’s life-threatening problems. But he also said bluntly that the agency needed to get his house in order by March 2023 because right now they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.
In response, JPL is making sweeping changes to its entire reporting structure. But he also called for greater oversight from Caltech and NASA. JPL is also implementing new internal approaches to staffing and working with industry partners to meet staffing needs and increase efforts to build experienced leadership at all levels.
For a VERITAS delay, NASA said in a statement that JPL “will terminate its leadership and engineering teams for the mission and free up personnel for other projects.” During this time, science teams will still receive funding and support. But in a subsequent phone call with reporters, Glaze said the Psyche mission might need more money than the agency would save by delaying VERITAS.
Either way, Leshin said, JPL will look into the panel’s recommendations, including consideration of other assignments the lab handles. “We’ll be working on each of our projects, especially the big ones like Clipper and Mars Sample Return, to make sure the lessons learned are properly applied.”
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