JPL Wins Kudos for Response to Psyche IRB Recommendations

JPL Wins Kudos for Response to Psyche IRB Recommendations

The Independent Review Board established by NASA to look into what happened with the Psyche asteroid mission last year is giving JPL high marks for how it is responding to the recommendations. Psyche missed its launch window because engineers ran out of time to test the software, necessitating a one-year delay. NASA postponed a completely unrelated Venus mission, VERITAS, for at least three years because it needed the money to pay for Psyche’s overrun.

Laurie Leshin, Director, JPL.

The IRB, chaired by Tom Young, a retired NASA and aerospace industry executive, issued its first report in November detailing problems not only with the Psyche mission itself, but institutional issues at JPL where the program is managed. Laurie Leshin became the new JPL Director just as the Psyche problems emerged and embraced the IRB’s recommendations. She and NASA agreed to have the IRB come back this spring to assess how JPL is implementing them. The IRB released its final report yesterday.

Unlike NASA’s nine civil servant field centers, JPL is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) under contract to NASA.

Young and Nicky Fox, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, lavished praise on JPL yesterday for how well it is responding to the recommendations both about the Psyche mission and the broader institutional issues.

Psyche is on track to meet its new launch date later this year. The spacecraft will visit an unusual asteroid by that name that is made mostly of metal. The launch can take place only when the asteroid and Earth are in the correct positions relative to each other. When they missed the August 1-October 11, 2022 launch window, it meant they had to wait until the next window opens on October 10, 2023.

Leshin said there are 18 weeks to go before launch and that includes seven weeks of schedule margin “so we’re in really good shape. The project is green across the board and on track for our October launch.”

Tom Young testifying at a November 13, 2019 House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing.

The IRB graded JPL’s response as “appropriate,” “appropriate with additional work,” or “inadequate.” Young stressed that either of the first two represented an “outstanding” grade.

Only one was rated as inadequate — the Standing Review Board (SRB) process.

NASA establishes SRBs for each of its major programs. The SRBs conduct routine independent reviews throughout a program’s development. They are separate from IRBs like this one that are established on an as-needed basis.

Young’s IRB found that Psyche’s SRB missed a lot of signals and NASA headquarters, which is responsible for the SRBs, was not responsive to what it did report. The IRB concluded the entire SRB process “really needed a lot of attention and to NASA’s credit, NASA agrees,” Young said, stressing that it is an agency-wide problem that is not unique to Psyche.

Excerpt from the final report of the Psyche Independent Review Board, May 30, 2023.

Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division Director at NASA headquarters, said the agency is already relooking at the SRB process with David Mitchell, NASA’s Chief Program Management Officer, in charge. Mitchell was a member of the Psyche IRB.

Apart from that, Young and the IRB were pleased with JPL’s response while acknowledging there is still a lot of work to do. Fox and Leshin agreed.

Some of Psyche’s problems were related to COVID-era disruptions as people worked virtually instead of in-person, complicating effective communications among team members. Leshin noted that JPL now has a policy that personnel work on site at least three days a week and daily attendance is “nearly double what it was in the spring of 2022.”

But the pandemic was only a “contributor” to the problems, “not the only reason,” Leshin said.

Another problem the IRB identified in its November report was that considering all the projects currently underway, JPL was understaffed both in numbers and areas of expertise. Leshin said hiring and retention efforts are now very successful. They’ve hired “hundreds of experienced employees in the last nine months including more than 50 … who had previously been at JPL who left for other places during the great resignation and in some cases before that, but we’ve brought them back, we’ve attracted them back.”

All this good news for Psyche and JPL may be small comfort to the VERITAS mission team. Glaze continually stresses that the decision to postpone VERITAS had nothing to do with the program itself. It was a matter of needing money to cover the Psyche overrun and reducing the workload at JPL, where VERITAS also is managed. VERITAS was supposed to launch in 2028, but has been postponed at least until 2031. The Planetary Society is petitioning Congress to restore funding so it can launch in 2029 instead.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.