Problems at Europa Clipper


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NASA has fired the project scientist for one overbudget and behind schedule instrument on Europa Clipper, and restructured work on a second instrument for similar reasons.

“We’ve been struggling on cost growth on Clipper for some time,” said Curt Niebur, program scientist for the mission at NASA Headquarters. “Overall, we’ve been largely successful in dealing with it, but late last fall, it became clear that there were three instruments that experiencing some continued and worrisome cost growth.”

The outcome of the reviews, he said, could have ranged from making no changes to the instruments to, in a worst-case scenario, terminating the instruments. The leadership of NASA’s Science Mission Directive recently decided to keep all three instruments, at least for now.

The fired scientist had been in charge of the mass spectrometer. At the moment they have installed a temporary replacement, and have put the instrument team on notice that it now has a very low priority. Should it fall further behind in schedule or budget it could easily be terminated.

The spacecraft’s imaging system also has schedule and budgeting problems, so much so that NASA was considering dropping the wide field camera, leaving Europa Clipper with only a narrow field camera. Right now both have been retained, but the wide field camera might still be dropped if costs continue to rise.

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7 comments

  • mpthompson

    NASA either needs to lead, follow, or get out of the way in terms of disrupting how space exploration is funded and managed. The status quo is clearly failing us.

  • anonymous

    So is this a situation of someone so tied in knots he can’t navigate the maze of paperwork to put a well understood instrument together? Or is it a case of impossible requirements? Or is it a case of no machine shop in sight, and no way to build anything without coordinating with unresponsive groups across the country?

    One of the deep frustrations of my career is how aggressively isolated we engineers are from any sort of TOOLS to BUILD THINGS. I have been chastised before at work for ordering parts with my own money and building things in my garage because it was faster and more sure to be *correct* than subcontracting it out to some vendor and trying to make them understand our requirements. (Not to mention all around psychologically less painful.) I work in a lab setting – we’re not allowed to touch machine tools because of union rules. (I’ve also been chastised for programming modeling and sim software to do specific things I wanted to make explicit, for developing lab instruments, really for doing anything even remotely creative and productive.) I’m trying not to succumb to an insidious evil sort of learned helplessness, but the bureaucracy is driving me crazy. How in the HELL are we supposed to learn how to be real engineers when we’re not supposed to even see the hardware we’re supposed to make decisions about? Everything’s supposed to fall out of abstract space, perfect and pure, or we’re supposed to worship artifacts of a more hands-on age cargo-cult style and never do anything but chase paperwork about it around and around.

  • MDN

    Anonymous

    Your story is sad and disappointing. I was lucky enough to go into engineering when we were still in our hay day.

    I got a degree in manufacturing engineering at Cal Poly where the motto was Learn by Doing and I logged as many hours in the shop as I did in engineering course work. And the bible I have shared as a model to follow for managing in the high tech world ever since it was published is the book “Skunkworks,” the autobiography of Ben Rich, who took over that fabled Lockheed Division when the legendary Kelly Johnson retired. Not only a fabulous read about astounding accomplishments in aerospace, but it outlines the business, structural, organizational, and managerial systems Kelly Johnson created in order to achieve them. And one of Kelly’s strictest rules was that engineering had to be joined at the hip with manufacturing to ensure clarity on intent and the prompt resolution of problems.

    Wrt the Europa Clipper instruments I suspect anonymous is right wrt unrealistic specifications. At the same time I think they tend to put too many eggs in too few baskets on these projects. Were it up to me I’d spec and fund 4-5 instrument teams for every 3 I could fly and select the best collection that were ready when the schedule dictated. Yeah, it will increase budgeting a bit, but competition to perform is essential and you should always hedge your bets given how expensive these ventures are.

  • Edward

    From the article: “Chodas said that Europa Clipper now has a launch readiness date of 2024, a year later than plans announced last year.

    A year for year schedule slip is a bad sign. It is a surefire way of exceeding budget and a signal that the project will never be completed.

    MDN wrote: “And one of Kelly’s strictest rules was that engineering had to be joined at the hip with manufacturing to ensure clarity on intent and the prompt resolution of problems.

    Early in my career I came to the same conclusion. I worked closely with machinists, technicians, and others who did the real work. (Give your machinist a thrill by showing him photos of the finished product. All he ever sees are a few individual parts and may have no idea what he is helping to build.) I also worked closely with several customers to make sure that we met their needs. I received company awards for such diligence, and a couple of times warned not to go beyond contractual obligations unless the company negotiates proper compensation — lesson: keep the boss informed, because he knows the contract.

  • pzatchok

    They couldn’t just call up a real camera company and ask for a quote.

    I am sure one if them has experience building cameras fit for space.

    Its not like a wide field camera has never been in space before.

  • Ryan Lawson

    Given current circumstances in my lab I can echo Mr. Anons musings. We have an engineer here who frequently buys and builds stuff himself rather than go through machine shops which will almost always be way late on delivery because something more important bumps your item to the back of the line. We work well together because I packrat parts and pieces he throws away and a year later I use it to make something he needs!

  • Jay

    I am getting a laugh out of a lot of posts here. I have a similar degree as MDN. I have worked in manufacturing, R&D for many years, and now a systems integrator. I too have read the Skunkworks book by Ben Rich and had a copy of Kelly Johnson’s rules as a reminder since college.
    A few times I have made parts in my shop on my lathe or welded up something since it was faster for me to do it than filling out request forms. I am also a colossal pack-rat when it comes to equipment. A few times I would have a manager make me get rid of my “little empire” of test equipment and later regret it when something came up. O’scopes don’t grow on trees you know.

    Anyway, I am not surprised by Europa Clipper going over. I remember reading “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto” on how APL got the project, not JPL, and kept it on budget/schedule. There were paragraphs in the book that were not flattering about JPL’s management. I know the Europa Clipper project is ran by JPL and APL has contributed one of the spectrometers to the spacecraft.

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