WASHINGTON — An independent review of the issues that delayed the launch of NASA’s asteroid Psyche mission has revealed institutional issues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that led the agency to delay the launch of another mission under development. the low.
NASA released the report of a NASA-commissioned independent review panel Nov. 4 after the Psyche mission missed its launch window earlier this year. The mission, to the metal main-belt asteroid of the same name, has suffered delays in the 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 development and testing delays were causing the mission to launch its August 2022 launch window, they did not. were not the only problems faced by Psyche. The board said other unresolved software issues, incomplete verification and validation of vehicle systems and “insufficient plans and preparation for mission operations” could also have caused the delay.
The council linked these issues to more fundamental issues with the management of not only the Psyche mission itself, but also others at JPL. “Psyche’s problems are not unique to Psyche. They are indicative of broader institutional issues,” Young said during an online public meeting hosted 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, especially in key technical expertise. “There is a big imbalance between the workload and the resources available at JPL today,” he said. “This imbalance was clearly a root cause of Psyche’s problems and, in our view, negatively affects all flight project activities at JPL.”
The report highlighted challenges in hiring and retaining skilled engineers as JPL competes with aerospace companies that offer higher salaries, especially 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 issues to the attention of managers while senior management failed to “penetrate enough” the project and detect problems earlier.
The pandemic and the shift to remote and hybrid working have also contributed to issues with Psyche in particular and JPL in general. Limited in-person interactions, the council concluded, reduce informal communication opportunities such as “walk-in” meetings. The report noted that members of Team Psyche “exchanged 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 to JPL to improve the hiring and retention of key technical personnel, increase project oversight, and review its current hybrid working policies. He also turned to Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA, to improve his knowledge of JPL’s activities.
NASA said it was implementing Psyche-specific recommendations, including increasing the mission’s workforce and improving surveillance. Young said the board believes the agency has developed a plan for the mission that would support a launch next October.
Laurie Leshin, who took over as JPL director in May, said she accepts the board’s conclusion regarding the lab. “Psyche has revealed gaps that we need to address, and we are committed to strengthening our organization and processes in a goal-oriented and forward-looking way,” she said. This included revising hybrid work approaches, although she said JPL would not revert to pre-pandemic policies.
Implementation of these recommendations will affect another NASA mission under development at JPL. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, noted that Psyche was the second JPL-led Discovery-class mission 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, a Venus orbiter mission the agency has selected for development in 2021.
“After much deliberation, I must say that we intend to move the VERITAS launch readiness date to 2031 at the earliest,” she said, a three-year slippage. “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.”
In a subsequent call with reporters, 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 that Psyche will need more money than the agency will save by postponing 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’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.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said he was in “active discussions” with Goddard Space Flight Center and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, two other centers that lead NASA science missions, to see if any type of NASA headquarters- directed review is required of the management of their missions.
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