NASA’s Psyche mission is back on track for October launch

WASHINGTON An independent review concluded that NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission was back on track for a launch this October after software problems, exacerbated by institutional issues at JPL, delayed its launch last year.

NASA released an Independent Review Board (IRB) report commissioned by the agency last year on June 5 after Psyche missed two launch windows in 2022 due to delays in flight software development and testing. That board concluded last fall that Psyche had been suffering from software development schedules but also wider problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including a strained workforce and poor internal communications.

The new report assessed how both the mission and JPL had implemented the recommendations made by the board in its previous report, concluding that both had made important progress.

The IRB believes the response to our Psyche project and the findings and recommendations of the JPL institute is excellent, said Tom Young, president of the IRB, in a call with reporters. We believe Psyche is on track for an October 2023 launch.

For Psyche, that work involved retooling the project around remaining work before launch and hiring experienced leadership, said Laurie Leshin, director of JPL. The project has now almost passed all remaining software tests.

With 18 weeks remaining before launch, preparations are going well, with a seven-week lead on schedule. The project, I’m pleased to report, is green across the board and on track for our October launch, she said.

The delay comes at an additional cost to NASA, which officials say is still under evaluation. A May 31 report from the Government Accountability Office evaluating NASA’s major projects found that the cost of Psyche, projected at just under $1 billion at the time of its confirmation in 2019, has grown to nearly $1.13 billion. as of January 2023. The report added that the new estimate was under revision due to potentially higher operating costs related to a longer travel time caused by the delay.

JPL, meanwhile, has been working on other workforce and communications recommendations that have been underway for months. This includes a new hybrid work policy that requires most people to work on site three days a week. The lab has improved hiring and retention efforts, bringing on what Leshin called hundreds of experienced employees, more than 50 of whom are people who previously worked at JPL and decided to return.

We have overcome our workforce issues, our missions are staffed, and we are much stronger today, he said.

Psyche’s lessons are applied to other missions at JPL. Leshin said the Europa Clipper mission, being developed for an October 2024 launch to study Jupiter’s frigid moon, has undergone a similar retooling to Psyche to focus on the remaining work.

One recommendation that the Independent Review Board found inadequate was the improvement of the Standing Review Board (SRB) process, an external committee for missions like Psyche designed to find issues such as those encountered by Psyche and communicate them to the project and the leadership of the NASA. The timing of the SRB reviews did not allow them to effectively address the issues that delayed the mission, the independent panel concluded.

Young said an SRB can be an extraordinarily credible project management tool provided they have the right people and meet frequently enough to identify problems early. It’s something that needs a lot of attention for the mission in general, and not just Psyche, she concluded.

He said NASA agreed that the SRB process needs to be strengthened and is a work in progress. I have high expectations that we will get this SRB process under control, so we can really count on it to be a check and balance on flight designs.

Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, agreed that the SRB process could be improved. The intent here is to take the results and really review, or re-examine, the SRB processes across NASA.

There are no plans to do comprehensive overhauls of other centers working on NASA science missions, said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for science, given the time and effort required. What we’re doing is making a very concerted effort to ensure that all lessons learned and best practices are passed on openly to all other centers, he said.

Fox, who accepted the job in February, said she was pleased with the progress she’s made to get Psyche back on track and improve JPL. We certainly don’t feel we can rest or even believe that the problems have disappeared or will disappear, she said. What we really feel here is that we have begun to change and that change must continue.

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