NASA’s VERITAS probe has been delayed to 2031 and, for once, it wasn’t due to technical issues with the probe. It was the result of a chain of events that started with a technical issue and a bureaucratic requirement for the Psyche mission.
The Psyche mission will explore a metals-rich asteroid of the same name that resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It was originally set to launch between August and October this year. However, it suffered a software glitch that delayed its launch. Then it had to go through one last continuation/termination review that held it up. Psyche will now launch as early as October 2023.
This caused a bit of a “traffic jam” for JPL, which is funded by NASA and managed by Caltech. With all the scientific missions that it manages for NASA, its employees were likely starting to fall behind on their work. They’re good, but they’re human and can only get so much done during “normal office hours.”
JPL employees can also make mistakes when they’re overworked and can’t pay as much attention to detailed “quality control” operations as they would have liked. An earlier review board determined that the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander of the 1990s failed due to technical issues that could have been prevented if their teams hadn’t had to contend with budget and time constraints that hurt their ability to put a fine polish on their work.
NASA referred to the cause of the delays for Psyche and VERITAS as “an imbalance between the workload and the available workforce at JPL” in a statement announcing that it had convened an independent review board to determine the cause of Psyche’s delay. It says it will revisit the issue in Spring 2023 to assess progress.
NASA also recommended addressing issues that included inadequate flight project staffing, a decline in line organization technical acumen, and the impact of COVID-19 on the work environment. Like most of NASA, JPL had to deal with a hybrid work environment that included employees in key positions working from home.
The review board also cited rapid turnover in JPL’s management and difficulty reaching senior managers to address issues. JPL Director Laurie Leshin hinted that managers had been spending too much time on staffing issues and needed to refocus their attention on technical oversight.
“[W]e need to make sure that people understand their roles and responsibilities and are doing that effectively,” she said during a briefing about the issue.
Review chair Tom Young echoed the sentiment, “We really didn’t recommend more middle management or managers. We really said that we had to have managers who had the necessary experience to execute a program with the complexity and challenges of Psyche.”
JPL and NASA said they were working on the staffing issues. In the meantime, something had to be pushed back to allow more time to get everything done, and that became VERITAS. VERITAS was originally set to launch in late 2027. When it finally launches in 2031, it will make the journey to Venus and map its surface from orbit.