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Beyond the Psyche Report

In May last year, I shared with you (here) my initial thoughts on the 782-page Planetary Decadal Survey published by the US National Academy of Sciences (here) titled ‘Origins, Worlds, and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032’. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in planetary science and space exploration policy.

If you recall, the survey recommended for NASA’s next flagship missions the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (OUP) and the Enceladus Orbilander. Furthermore, it supported the continuation of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program, which it listed as the highest scientific priority. Also mentioned was the proposal to significantly increase (20-40%) the budget of NASA’s Discovery missions (small-size class) and New Frontiers missions (mid-size class) to reflect their actual running costs and ensure that the launch cadence is in line with both programs’ objectives. Given the strong recommendations in the report and the numerous planned space missions, the future of planetary science seemed promising.

Fast forward to March 2023, and dark clouds have since dampened the mood within the field. For a start, many were keen to see if the planetary science division in NASA’s 2023 budget (proposed by the White House and approved by Congress) would see an increase as suggested in the survey. It hasn’t. Or at least, it has from $3.120M to $3.200M, which is a fantastic budget(!) but not to the degree proposed in the survey.

More concerning though were the rumours that Psyche - the discovery-class mission planned to visit the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche - was facing challenges during its development phase at JPL and would most likely miss the July 2022 launch window.

By June, NASA came out in the open and confirmed that the mission was postponed for October 2023 due to a lack of testing time. The Psyche delay had unfortunate consequences as hard choices had to be made. Gone were the JANUS nanosats supposed to piggyback on the original mission. And VERITAS, another Discovery-class mission to Venus, was delayed by three years to ensure that Psyche has enough personnel to support its planned development and launch in October this year.

Only when a sobering independent report on the Psyche delay was published on the 4th of November - the now-called Psyche Report available here - did people realise the full extent of the setbacks: JPL, it turns out, is suffering from “institutional issues” and is facing “unprecedented workload” while its staff is spread thin and technical expertise is being lost to more competitive private aerospace companies. Having recently spoken to someone who worked at JPL on the Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers, only to leave a few years later, I am comforted by the idea that the Psyche report paints an honest and in-depth picture of the crisis faced at JPL.

While the ripple effects of the Psyche delay and subsequent report are still being felt, it is worth taking a birds-eye view to see the bigger picture. Looking from above, the problems facing JPL can be directly related to two recent positive changes in the US space exploration landscape.

The first is the increase in the number of planetary missions being developed and launched by NASA (and supported by Congress). While we always wish for more missions to be sent out into our Solar System, it is worth noting that never in the history of planetary exploration have so many missions been active simultaneously (take a look at the robotic fleet at Mars) with more in development. As I often say in public outreach events, we live in a new golden era of planetary exploration, and while this is putting JPL and other space-related centres under a lot of heat, it is a good problem to have.

The second positive change is the continued impetus in privatising space exploration, which NASA and Congress have fully supported for decades. NewSpace has become so successful now (SpaceX, etc.) that it is partly responsible for the low retention rate at JPL. In effect, the US space exploration program is a victim of its own success.

As we move along in the coming years, there is no reason to believe that JPL and other space centres can't navigate successfully through these changing times and make the current golden era an enduring one. One step back, two steps forwards.

As always, onwards and upwards. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

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