NASA Keeps Psyche, But VERITAS Pays the Price

NASA Keeps Psyche, But VERITAS Pays the Price

An independent review of why NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission was not ready for its scheduled launch this fall uncovered a host of problems not just with that mission, but more broadly with management of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The review found that JPL is stretched to the limit, with inadequate flight project staffing and “erosion of Line organization technical acumen.” Instead of terminating Psyche, NASA will fix the problems and launch next year, but an unrelated JPL mission to Venus, VERITAS, will be delayed three years so its funding can be diverted to Psyche and the JPL workload reduced.

The Psyche spacecraft will visit an unusual asteroid by that name made mostly of metal. The launch window was open from August 1 to October 11, 2022 and launch was expected on September 20. In June, NASA announced a delay of at least a year because the project team ran out of time to test the Guidance, Navigation and Control (GN&C) software. Not that the software was faulty, there just wasn’t enough time to test it.

Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, established an Independent Review Board (IRB) to discover what went wrong. Chaired by Tom Young, a long-time veteran of NASA and the aerospace industry who often leads investigations into NASA and national security space programs that run into trouble, the IRB publicly released its report on November 4.

The report is surprising in the breadth and depth of concerns it uncovered. While there certainly were problems specific to Psyche, many were part of broader problems at JPL, which manages the project.

Zurbuchen called the report a “canary in the coal mine” that will help prevent other programs from encountering the same fate.

Psyche is a one of NASA’s Discovery series of medium-class robotic planetary exploration missions. NASA holds competitions every two-three years to select new Discovery missions, which are proposed by scientists who serve as Principal Investigators (PIs). NASA selected Psyche and another asteroid mission, Lucy, for development in the 2017 Discovery round. Lucy is on its way to the Trojan Asteroids right now.

Illustration of the Psyche Spacecraft. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University is the PI for Psyche. She chose JPL as part of her team to manage the project. JPL’s Matt Wallace is the Project Manager. (Henry Stone, who was Project Manager in June, is now Deputy Project Manager.)  Maxar is providing the spacecraft through a fixed price contract.

Although the IRB identified a number of problems, ineffective communications surfaced again and again. The PI and Project Manager “endeavored to set the tone for a strong project culture with positive communication” among team members, but it didn’t work.

IRB report, page 19.

There were bigger problems, too. JPL is very busy these days managing several NASA missions including two of its highest science priorities: Europa Clipper to study Jupiter’s icy moon by that name and the Mars Sample Return mission to bring samples currently being collected by the Perseverance rover back to Earth.

The IRB found that “Psyche did not receive the attention necessary to deal with the staffing and experienced-personnel challenges they were facing,” which were much greater than previously realized. [All the slides that follow are from the IRB report.]

After considering the IRB’s findings, NASA decided to continue Psyche rather than terminate it. A plan is now in place to get it ready for launch in October 2023, the next time the asteroid and Earth are properly aligned. That includes adding a Project Chief Engineer, a GN&C Cognizant Engineer, and a Lead for Fault Protection.

But that good news for the Psyche team is paired with bad news for a completely separate mission, VERITAS.

The only link between the two is that they both are Discovery missions managed at JPL.

VERITAS is one of two Venus mission picked by NASA in 2021. They are the first NASA missions dedicated to studying Venus in more than 30 years. The other, DAVINCI+, is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

VERITAS drew the short straw because NASA needs money to pay for fixing Psyche and also wants to address the issue about JPL being overloaded.

NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze told reporters Friday that NASA will still need more money for Psyche than what can be diverted from VERITAS, however. She declined to provide figures for how much Psyche’s cost has grown — it is about $1 billion including launch now — or how much will be taken from VERITAS. VERITAS wasn’t canceled, but will be delayed three years until 2031.

NASA’s Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) is holding its annual meeting this week. Glaze is scheduled to speak Monday morning.

A. Thomas Young testifying to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, November 13, 2019.

The IRB report focused as much if not more on JPL than Psyche and what needs to change to avoid problems like this in the future. Some of the findings centered on a lack of communications particularly in the COVID-19 era where working from home became commonplace and the informal conversations that typically occur in the workplace disappeared.

In separate briefings to the science community and reporters on Friday, Young repeatedly focused on the “informal safety net” that was lost because “walking the floor” and “drop-in discussions” faded away.

“Those of us who, over our careers, have spent a lot of time at JPL recognize… that JPL has a highly integrated workforce that socializes informally in the work environment” sharing information on problems that surface in different programs. “COVID fundamentally eliminated that safety net.”

He added that COVID “was not the root cause” of Psyche’s problems, but “certainly was a contributing factor.” The IRB urged JPL to return to more in-person rather than hybrid work.

More broadly, the IRB found that JPL has “an unprecedented workload” and an “imbalance” between workload and resources. It called for a major effort to be undertaken by March 2023 to achieve the needed balance by choosing from a list of options.

NASA already picked the second bullet by delaying VERITAS, but there’s more to come. The IRB cited a host of other problems including an “erosion of Line organization technical acumen” and “insufficient JPL senior management engagement in flight projects.”

Laurie Leshin, Director, JPL.

JPL is a not a civil service center like NASA’s other facilities around the country. Instead it is Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.

Laurie Leshin is the brand-new Director of JPL. She’s been on the job only since May, but has extensive experience at NASA and in the space science community. A former director of Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies, she held leadership positions at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (2005-2008) and NASA Headquarters (2008-2010) before returning to academia. She was Dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from 2010-2014 and President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute from 2014-2022.

During the virtual “Town Hall” meeting with the science community on Friday, she expressed gratitude to the IRB and vowed to “embrace the opportunity here to learn, and move forward, and improve.”

Glaze said NASA will have a follow-up meeting with the IRB next spring to see how things are going with Psyche and the JPL issues. Leshin said she expects to be able to show a lot progress by then.

NASA’s science portfolio is being funded at record levels right now, about $7 billion a year. But the purchasing power of those dollars is being eroded by inflation. Added to workforce and supply-chain impacts of COVID-19, many programs are stretched thin.

In its FY2023 budget request, NASA proposed delaying another science mission, NEO Surveyor, because of constrained funding in the planetary science budget. Psyche is funded out of that same budget.

Congress has not completed action on any of the FY2023 funding bills, but the House and Senate appropriators who oversee NASA added some money back for NEO Surveyor and encouraged NASA to launch it as soon as possible. Now Psyche needs more money in the very near term to launch 11 months from now. How Congress and NASA deal with all these funding demands will be interesting to watch as well as how JPL addresses the institutional issues the IRB identified.

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