May 29, 2023
NASA Responds to Disappointing Review of Psyche Mission, Entire Gas Propulsion Laboratory - ExtremeTech

NASA Responds to Disappointing Review of Psyche Mission, Entire Gas Propulsion Laboratory – ExtremeTech

An independent review of the problems that delayed the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission also revealed general institutional issues at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. JPL is struggling with an unprecedented, overwhelming workload, and its resources are clearly very limited.

Psyche was originally scheduled to launch with Artemis 1 on August 29 this year. But a number of problems, including the SLS missing its own launch window, conspired to delay the mission. Orbital engineering dictates that the next plausible launch window for Psyche comes in October 2023. So the agency convened an independent review panel led by retired aerospace executive and former NASA administrator Tom Young to do some basic analysis of delays. The board’s damning report (PDF) found that the Psyche project was riddled with problems from top to bottom. But he also characterized Psyche’s problems as just the visible tip of the iceberg — the inevitable consequences of systemic problems throughout JPL.

Following the review panel’s report, NASA held an online town hall meeting and press conference. Laurie Leshin and Thomas Zurbuchen, the NASA administrators who convened the review committee in the first place, attended both meetings to field questions and to edit 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 cooperating fully with the review board, which the agency itself convened—but it’s a stunning portrait of systemic dysfunction.

Complete General Repair

16 Psyche is a main belt asteroid. It is the largest metallic planetarium in our solar system: the exposed core of a planet that could have been. By itself, 16 Psyche represents almost one percent of the total mass of the main belt. Therefore, this piece of metal is of incalculable value, whether you consider it as a commodity or as a source of scientific data.

Psyche averages 111 km (69 mi) in diameter, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island but not as large as Delaware.

NASA has determined that the Psyche mission is irreplaceable. His one mission, to explore his namesake asteroid – “a world made not of rock or ice but of metal” – he can’t just slip into another mission. However, the Psyche mission is in jeopardy, and its problems have begun to spread to other missions. And the report is clear: Nothing short of a comprehensive overhaul will be enough to fix things at JPL.

“The issues of the Psyche are not unique to the Psyche. They are indicative of broader institutional issues,” Young said during the town hall meeting. First, the report showed JPL struggling with an unprecedented workload. Right now, the Lab is managing more projects than at any other time in its history. But it also suffers from severe understaffing at every level, from new talent to experienced employees who can mentor others.

One big reason: JPL is hemorrhaging talent into private space companies. They can’t pay engineers enough to keep them, or entice new hires. It’s hard to overstate how big a problem this is. The project Psyche it literally had no chief engineer. From the report:

The pandemic also interrupted the Psyche project, as it interrupted everything else. Lockdowns and then working from home in the post-pandemic work environment have been completely devastating to communication and schedules. Specifically, the report names the kind of informal “conversations” that happen in the cafeteria or when someone pokes their head in to chat. It turns out that in NASA’s deeply collaborative organizational structure, these conversations really matter.

“Canary in the Coal Mine”

JPL steps into control like they’re washing a bleeding wound. But there is another, more subtle problem here, which is harder to name. Psyche’s review found that JPL has experienced a kind of cultural “erosion,” weakening the institution as a whole.

Aerospace culture at its most efficient and successful is involved in a kind of error-free control. When someone drops a circuit board or pokes an accidental hole, that person can report the incident to their superiors without fear of punishment. You want to report when and how these problems occur because you need to know Why happen, to make sure they don’t happen again.

This kind of radical transparency is what got us to the Moon. It allows us to put satellites like the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit, believing that they will work as the documents say. But the Psyche review showed that this culture of trust and transparency is crumbling across JPL. Instead, a “proof there’s a problem” culture prevailed. Budget pressure, staffing issues and remote work due to the pandemic “created an environment where staff at the employee level were challenged to prove there was a problem before providing schedule and/or budget relief or changing basic plans. Team members experienced the normalization of deviance in relation to understaffing, high stress, inadequate planning, and counterintuitive employee pushback.”

The agency’s official response welcomed the board’s findings. Zurbuchen said, “It’s our job to spot problems early – this report is essentially a canary in the coal mine – and address them. Information like this helps us for more than just Psyche, but also for upcoming key missions like Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return.”


Unfortunately, NASA authorities did not notice Psyche’s many issues in time to prevent the VERITAS mission to Venus from becoming a casualty. Desperate to staff the Psyche mission, NASA delays the VERITAS probe so that VERITAS personnel can contribute to the Psyche project. After bemoaning their staff being poached by other companies, they are forced to do it themselves.

“After much discussion, I have to say that we intend to push back the launch readiness date of VERITAS to no earlier than 2031,” said Laurie Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. “This deferral may both offset the workforce imbalance for at least those three years and provide some of the increased funding that will be required to continue Psyche toward the 2023 launch.”

During the annual meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group on Monday, Glaze described the mission’s delay as “the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life.” Although it never broke its schedule, VERITAS will now start three years late. Still, Glaze said, “there were zero good options.”

“I recognize that you are not responsible for the things that are going to be evaluated, that is out of your control,” Glaze said later, addressing a member of the VERITAS team. “I can commit to you and your team being transparent and working with you.” But that’s all the company can promise right now.

Next steps for JPL

The report made recommendations to address Psyche’s potentially fatal problems. But he also brazenly said that the agency needs to get its 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 establishing new internal staffing approaches and working with industry partners to support staffing needs and redouble efforts to strengthen experienced leadership at all levels.

For a VERITAS delay, NASA said in a statement, JPL “will be relinquishing its management and engineering teams for the mission and freeing up personnel for other projects.” In the meantime, scientific teams will continue to receive funding and support. But in a later phone call with reporters, Glaze said the Psyche mission may need more money than the agency will save by delaying VERITAS.

Either way, Leshin said, JPL will build on the committee’s recommendations, including a review of other missions managed by the Lab. “We will work on each of our projects, especially the big ones like Clipper and Mars Sample Return, to make sure that the lessons learned are applied appropriately.”

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