A Venus mission will have to wait at least three more years to launch due to issues with another NASA interplanetary venture.
A tangle of problems led to the delay of the Psyche spacecraft mission to the main asteroid belt, which was originally scheduled to launch between August and October this year.
Psyche survived a continuation/termination review this year which could have led to its cancellation and is now scheduled to fly in October 2023. But costs and personnel issues associated with Psyche’s delay have pushed back the launch of another mission from senior NASA level of at least three years, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California and the agency said.
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VERITAS (“Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy”) had been targeted for liftoff in late 2027, but will now not launch until 2031. VERITAS will use radar to map the surface of Venus from orbit in great detail. (Another NASA Venus mission, DAVINCI+, is still on track for a 2029 launch.)
While development problems with the Psyche’s flight software have been singled out as the primary technical cause for the delay in the JPL-led mission, an independent investigation released Friday (November 4) revealed broader issues. (opens in a new tab) with management and staff who contributed to the problem.
“The review panel – convened at the request of NASA and JPL – found that a significant factor in the delay was an imbalance between workload and available manpower at JPL,” said NASA officials in a statement. (opens in a new tab) late Friday. “NASA will work closely with JPL management over the coming months to address the challenges raised in the report. The board will meet again in the spring of 2023 to assess progress.”
Psyche, which will visit its metallic asteroid namesake, will still have to find money to cover an expected development funding shortfall even after NASA delayed the estimated $500 million (opens in a new tab) VERITAS, NASA’s Lori Glaze warned while speaking with reporters at a news conference on Friday. The agency previously noted that the cap for the Psyche mission (including launch) was $985 million, and that $717 million had already been spent by the end of June. (opens in a new tab).
“There is an increased cost to the divisional budget to support the development of Psyche,” said Glaze, director of planetary sciences at NASA. Additionally, NASA determined that delaying VERITAS “would allow experienced JPL personnel to complete development of strategic flagship missions later in their development,” the agency’s statement said Friday.
Programmatic changes to Psyche are coming in the meantime. The Board of Inquiry identified a range of personnel issues, including (but not limited to) lack of communication due to hybrid work associated with COVID-19 isolation protocols; a rapid change of management (three times in four years); and employees unable to easily report issues to those higher up in the mission chain of command.
Staff shortages have been linked to two failed Mars missions in the late 1990s: the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, each of which failed to reach its destination safely due to technical problems. . But this time it was less a staffing issue than a lack of technical oversight, JPL director Laurie Leshin said during Friday’s briefing. The pandemic has induced some of these issues, Leshin added.
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Managers at Psyche, she said, “were spending a lot more time trying to resolve staffing issues, and that may prevent them from performing the technical oversight that we expect of them as well. So, for me, is a very important thread to pull here. It’s not that we need more [people]. It’s that we need to make sure people understand their roles and responsibilities and do it effectively.”
Leshin stressed that the Psyche team should look at its processes to “make sure we’re doing the highest value things,” including finding the right metrics and focusing on innovation. Lessons learned from this process, she said, will help manage other upcoming NASA missions like Europa Clipper, about to launch on an icy moon of Jupiter in 2024.
Review chair Tom Young, who also chaired the inquiry into the two Mars failures in 1998, pointed out that the circumstances were different in terms of personnel between then and now. He described those two failed Mars missions as “very limited” in cost and schedule, which increased the risk. With Psyche, he noted, employees came forward to say the mission wasn’t ready: “It takes courage to say you’re not ready to go.”
“We really didn’t recommend more middle managers or managers,” Young added. “We really felt that we had to have managers who had the experience to run a program with the complexity and challenges of Psyche.”
NASA and JPL agreed, or agreed in spirit, with all of the recommendations made by the board and have “already done a lot” to improve processes for Psyche going forward. , Leshin noted. New leadership is in place in areas such as systems engineering, and new processes are in the works to increase collaboration. The group is also “increasing its efforts to ensure that we attract the talent we need” amid an industry-wide labor shortage, she said, this which includes measures such as salary compensation review and mentorship opportunities.
“We are taking on this challenge. We are taking on this challenge every day, and we are doing well. We are able to hire great people, and we will continue to do so,” added Leshin. The positions are open today to anyone who wishes to apply, she added.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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