Planetary Radio • Jan 06, 2023
Space Policy Edition: JPL Director wants "every brain" to have the chance to work in space exploration
On This Episode
Jet Propulsion Lab Director and Planetary Scientist
Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society
Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
After the delay of the Psyche mission, an independent review board faulted management and workforce problems at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as one of the causes. This month, we feature the JPL Director, Dr. Laurie Leshin, to discuss what the lab is doing in response to these critiques, how NASA can compete with the private sector for top talent, and why our society needs to improve the diversity of its workforce to ensure every brain possible can work in space exploration.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Welcome everyone, to our monthly space policy edition at Planetary Radio. I'm really glad that you've joined us. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed, the new host of Planetary Radio. As many of you know, Matt Kaplan, our former host and the creator of Planetary Radio has retired from the show and moved on to a new role as senior communications advisor here at The Planetary Society. We're all going to miss him a lot, but that does not mean that our in-depth space policy analysis is going to stop anytime soon. I'm here with Casey Dreier. He is our Chief of Space Policy at The Planetary Society. Thanks for letting me join you on my first episode of Space Policy Edition, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Oh, Sarah, the pleasure is all mine. I'm excited to have you here. Welcome to the exciting, heady, and endlessly fascinating world of space policy. I'm really glad to see you. I listened to your first show, I should say, earlier this week. Congratulations. It sounded great.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thank you.
Casey Dreier: I'm really happy to have you here.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: This is going to be a learning process for me. I love space exploration and I am aware of what's going on in politics, but I'm really excited to delve more into this world of space advocacy and I think this will help out a lot.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, I might be a bit biased, but I think it's truly one of the most interesting things, to study and explore. Well, I always think it's like physics. You have a physics background, I have a physics background. It's like you have a fascination with the rules and the systems behind the way the world works, why the world is the way it is. policy is the reason behind the things that we see in space. It's the politics, it's the finding out the rules and the patterns and the laws that drive the outputs that we see at a fundamental level. So it's just really fascinating to see the why behind the where and where we're going.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Right. Once you understand the why, you can really use that to get things done, which is why I feel like our space policy advocacy branch of what we do is one of the most powerful things that we do here at The Planetary Society.
Casey Dreier: Could not agree with you more.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I understand that you had a really interesting conversation with Laurie Leshin, right?
Casey Dreier: I did. So this is our guest today, very excited, the director of JPL, Dr. Laurie Leshin. Astute listeners might recall that she appeared on an earlier episode last year with Matt Kaplan on the regular Planetary Radio. I asked her on this month because of what happened with the Psyche Mission, this Discovery Class, so-called small-class Planetary Mission that missed its launch date right after she assumed the directorship of JPL, and as a consequence delayed VERITAS, the small-class Venus Mission that was on the books for a few years from now. But what was fascinating to me is that NASA ran an independent review panel to understand what went wrong with Psyche. One of the major critiques was not just that something happened in Psyche, that the project itself had made a mistake, though there were a few of those, but that JPL had a fundamental problem with its workforce, with being unable to provide the type of management and engineering work necessary to successfully make this mission happen and had implications for much larger and more expensive missions such as Europa Clipper Mars Sample Return, and a variety of other massive projects that JPL's working on right now. So I was really interested to talk to her and we do on the concept of workforce, the fundamental ability to make the things that we see in space and the things that we don't have that ready to go, if we don't have that really humming, it doesn't matter how much money we provide if we don't have the people ready to make use of it. So that's why we talk about these fundamentals of what JPL is doing to address that and if there is a fundamental problem and how it'll affect some of these upcoming missions. So she was very gracious with her time. I was very happy that she came to talk about this. She assumed this, again, that most of this happened right before she came, so it's a tough problem to just have gifted to you as the new director of JPL, but she doesn't hide from it. She really dives into it, has some great answers. It's a very, I thought, fascinating conversation and I'm very excited she's here today.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm so excited to listen to that. I've been very busy recently, obviously, taking on my new role, but I have been so curious about what's going on be beside behind the scenes there. So that's exciting for me. I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say to her.
Casey Dreier: It's one of those things, again, it just reminds you that space exploration, you don't just go to the spacecraft store and swipe Uncle Sam's credit card and buy-
Sarah Al-Ahmed: If only.
Casey Dreier: ... a new Psyche mission or spacecraft just ready to go. These are very precisely made, very specialized, one-of-a-kind spacecraft, and you have to have the people ready and the materials ready and the capability to deliver on those, to make and design them. That has all sorts of long-term consequences and those things, you can't turn on and off with a light switch. Those are fundamental capabilities, and this is actually one of the bigger policies that the United States, in general, has been focusing a lot of policy effort on is this concept of workforce, supply chain, what they call industrial policy .for the first time, I'd say in decades, industrial policy is actually quite hot in the policy circles. Beyond the cover of Policy Magazine would be industrial policy would be on the cover. It's just something that we need to start thinking about in a world that is, in a sense, not necessarily de-globalization, but reinforcing its structure or balkanizing its sources and infrastructure and workforce in a way to make it resilient to shocks to the global system. Obviously COVID plays a huge part of this too, that we'll touch on. But again, there's I think some really interesting fundamental aspects of, and to me actually a fundamental irony, which is one of the problems is that we have all these new commercial space companies out there who are willing to pay more than what government pays, who are willing to give more flexibility, can move faster, less burdened in a sense, by the bureaucratic superstructure of public systems that are competing then directly with the same people NASA needs themselves. This was NASA policy, is NASA policy for years to create a fertile commercial space sector that is now, in essence, competing for its own best people. So it's a problem of their own creation in a way, which is one of these second, third order effects that probably not really many people thought about when this other policy was put into play.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, in a moment of great change like this all across the world, these are the moments that we need to reassess and analyze our processes and analyze whether or not things like that make sense. But ultimately, I'm just happy to have more and more people in on space exploration. It's a complicated issue, but I'm sure you'll get to the bottom of it, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Yes. We'll figure it out. We'll get there.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I was going to pitch, actually, I know that Matt does this at the beginning of each episode, but I know the people that listen to this show care as much about these programs as we do, and your advocacy really, really matters. So if you would like to help us fund the programs, fund our advocacy, be a part of our mission to do this work, please consider joining The Planetary Society. It really makes a huge difference. You can actually join our organization at planetary.org/join. It is the best way to help out with space advocacy that I've found in my personal life and make sure that NASA programs really get the funding that they need to get all these things done.
Casey Dreier: Absolutely.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Speaking of funding, I know that there was a big development recently with the congressional budget and what's going on with NASA's budget. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened there?
Casey Dreier: This was the big space policy event of the Christmas and holiday season that we just came through. Since our last episode, we actually have a 2023 NASA budget. Along with, of course, the budget of the rest of the federal government passed literally right before Christmas Eve. As the snowstorm was bearing down on Congress in classic fashion, they mushed every spending bill that the government needs to function together into what's called an omnibus, right? NASA, of course, was part of this. NASA on the overall did well, not as good as either the House or Senate top lines had initially predicted, which is consistent with the last few years. But in absolute terms, NASA still grew from the prior year, and this is critical right now. Obviously with inflation and other things, there's a lot of pressure on NASA's budget. Even if you were kept flat, it would be effectively a cut because everything just costs more than it used to be. So we saw roughly 5 1/2% increase to NASA, which is good. It's about at $1.2 billion. This additional funding is really directed into two areas. It's directed into science and it's directed into human exploration, the two big meaty parts of NASA's budget right now. Exploration, which is Artemis primarily did exceptionally well. It functionally got all the money that they asked for. This is money going to the SLS rocket development, to the upgrades necessary for the 1B variant of the SLS with the exploration upper stage. It got the money necessary to continue building the Lunar Gateway, the future orbiting space station around the moon.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Still looking forward to that.
Casey Dreier: I know. It's funny, a lot of people dismiss the Gateway is not really getting it as why when you can land on the moon, why orbit it? But come on, it's an orbiting space station around the moon.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Come on.
Casey Dreier: It's not like there's a ton of those. It's not like it's we've ever had one of those before.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: But especially with what's going on with the International Space Station, knowing that it's going to be de-orbiting at some point, I just have this future vision of transitioning to this beautiful Lunar Gateway and it all just coming together.
Casey Dreier: I love the Gateway. The Gateway's also a critical aspect of the international partnership because it has the Europeans, the Japanese, the Canadians and other nations are choosing to engage on the Gateway. It's way easier, relatively speaking and more affordable, relatively speaking, than contributing to direct landings on the surface of the moon, which are hard as we know from history. So it presents this really good platform to maintain this international partnership aspect of Artemis. That got funded at its request, which was roughly 700 $800 million, which is very good. Very importantly, the Human Landing System project, which is currently, it has SpaceX as the sole contractor, as the fixed price contract to create this landing system to land people on the moon, saw an increase to help accommodate additional providers coming on board in the future, which is also really important so we can have competition there. Science overall, did well. It grew compared to last year, though not as much as we had originally hoped. Planetary science did exceptionally well, though. Planetary science was one of the few actual of NASA's five major sciences, planetary science grew the most in terms of absolute dollars compared to the prior year. That extra money goes to Mars Sample Return increases, this massive project that is now itself larger than NASA's Heliophysics Division, its own larger than some entire science divisions. It's such a major project. We saw money provided to NEO Surveyor. That was our top advocacy priority of the year. We secured 50 million more than was requested by NASA. It's not everything the program needed to stay on track for 2026. Now NASA's officially confirmed a '28 launch is what we talked about last time on the show, but it was much more than that. Additional money really helped prevent some of the really crippling potential disruptions to the project in terms of having to shed staff and contractors, and it was very disruptive prior to that. So this was one of the largest congressional appropriations relative to NASA's original request. It's more than double NASA's request in the entire budget this year. So I think we can really take ownership of that along with our partners in this who really push NASA and Congress to address this funding problem for NEO Surveyor. I want to thank the over 5,000 Planetary Society members and supporters who wrote their members of Congress, our members of the Day of Action last year who met virtually with members of Congress and really highlighted NEO Surveyor as a problem. This is society advocacy in action, and we're really happy to see this money and we're really happy to see the program itself officially now and it's gone into law and also, has an official launch date. So it's functionally turned around. We're in a very confident and good place with this project, and we just had to get it through this squeeze year, which we did. We gave it a little extra. So overall, really happy with all of our priorities, generally really well represented in this budget.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's really nice to hear because I am also one of those people that wrote into my Congress people to ask them to support NEO Surveyor, so seeing this all come together really made me feel good. That's one more step toward defending the earth from impacts.
Casey Dreier: Yes. Right. That's generally, again, it's strange that the most popular, let's not have humanity destroyed by an asteroid would have to fight so hard to get it funded. Again, this is the process of it's a new topic that NASA's tasked with doing. It doesn't have the entrenched bureaucracy that it has around, and I don't use that in a pejorative sense, but just it doesn't have the inherent structures that support the scientific efforts, the human space flight efforts, even the aeronautics efforts. So they have to crawl and grab their way into relevancy. This is sometimes what you have to go through, these pinch points where you have to fight for the funding, but sometimes you come out on the other side stronger than you were before because you went through, you were tested, and then you had the entire system, members of Congress, the public, the national academies and the scientific communities all come out and really assert, "No, no, no, this is important." Now after this, I would venture to say it's going to be one of the most unquestionably supported programs in NASA because of the pushback that they got this year.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's really good to hear. Just imagine if we didn't take the steps we needed to defend our earth from something that we know has impacted us before and literally wiped out most of the life on the planet, I'm proud of that-
Casey Dreier: It's the marshmallow test for humanity, right? Can we think ahead and not just eat our marshmallows right away?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Right?
Casey Dreier: So I have all the numbers. So I went through a lot of numbers. Anyone who wants to see the numbers, you can look at the show notes of this episode. It's linked on our FY 2023 NASA budget page on planetary.org. It's very easy to search for or find on the NASA budget information. It's all updated and I've updated all of my tracking tables for you real policy nerds out there who love to see the numbers like me. I have updated our in-depth tracking historical tables for all of NASA's budget with this information, planetary science budget with this information. All of those are up-to-date and relevant now. So you can reference those to your heart's content and see how NASA's budget has changed in context and what this funding means in context. Just a little preview for those who do these things, this is NASA's best budget if you adjust for inflation since the mid-1990s. So we're really talking about there's a lot of good things have been happening at NASA over the last 10 years, because we've had steady growth year- after-year-after-year. Even if we don't get everything we've asked for in total, we are, NASA's working with roughly $7 billion more per year than it had in 2014, and that's pretty extraordinary.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so exciting. It really is. That really is absolutely extraordinary, and you always put together such an in-depth and insightful analysis of the budget each year. So anybody who wants to read that can go to our website at planetary.org. But we will also link to it on the page for this episode at planetary.org/radio just for easy access.
Casey Dreier: Absolutely.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Let's move on to your wonderful interview with Laurie Leshin. I am looking forward to this.
Casey Dreier: Yes, it was very fun. Again, I'm thankful for the time that she spent. As you might imagine, she's very busy woman these days as the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, no easy task. But we had a great discussion about this topic. She's been on the show before. She needs very little introduction. But her background, she is a planetary scientist. She's been a university president. She's worked at NASA and we even talk about that a little bit how all of this stuff makes her a very unique set of skills for a very unique job, which is being NASA's only federally-funded research and development center, FFRDC, different than its normal centers. That has a whole host of responsibilities such as answering to the board of trustees at Caltech as opposed to NASA just exclusively. So let's drive in right now. Here's Laurie Leshin. Dr. Leshin, thank you for joining me today on the Space Policy Edition.
Laurie Leshin: It's great to be with you, Casey.
Casey Dreier: We're having you back. You spoke with my colleague, Matt Kaplan, not all that long ago, but it was before something really important happened that I wanted you to dive into bigger topics on this episode, which is the Psyche Independent Review Board, the spacecraft going to this metallic asteroid that was delayed this year, had some broad things to say about not just the mission itself, but larger management challenges facing the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I want to make it clear, you came in after all this, you came in just as this was happening-
Laurie Leshin: Like three weeks after I got here I figured out we weren't going to make the launch, so it was ...
Casey Dreier: So it's just a lot to take in, but this is about moving forward an interesting opportunity to really evaluate how this works. So I think before we really get going, a big question for you, is JPL at capacity right now? Can it handle any new missions or are you basically dealing with everything you can possibly deal with?
Laurie Leshin: Well, we're really busy, that's for sure. The great news is, and Casey, you remember this a decade ago, or not even a decade ago, we were fighting for the planetary science budget. It was like $1.2 billion a year. It's now $3.2 billion a year. So the good news story is, and by the way, the NASA science budget is way up too. So these are really good things for exploring more places, for doing more science. It means that we're all, everybody across all of aerospace is pretty busy right now. I can only frame that as a good problem, but it is still a challenge. Frankly, one of the challenges about it is that we were hoping to have workforce rolling off of Psyche and onto other things. Now we've got very, thankfully, we are going to launch this fantastic mission next October, but that means we've got about 150 people that are still working on Psyche here. Those are challenges that we are working on every single day. While some parts of the lab are extremely busy, we've got other parts of the lab that could still you some work, so we're always working to optimize. It's not a simple answer to that question. As soon as we get Psyche launched, Clipper launches and NISAR, our next bigger earth science mission both launch in '24. Those are both huge missions, so we're constantly managing to optimize those workforce levels.
Casey Dreier: You brought up the budget numbers, which obviously I'm a big fan and close follower of. I was even pulling up some JPL annual reports talking just about the lab expenditures and budgets. Just in the last 10 years, there's been a growth of about 50% of costs and also, and in personnel grown by at least 20 or so percent.
Laurie Leshin: Yeah.
Casey Dreier: You're over 6,000 people now, so you grew by over 1,000 people in the last 10 years. These aren't unskilled individuals. These are very specialized-
Laurie Leshin: The most fabulous individuals on the planet.
Casey Dreier: ... highly trained. It just makes me realize, when I talk to our members and we advocate for space, we talk about things in terms of giving the resources for groups like JPL and other NASA centers to do this work, but it's not like turning on a light switch. You can't just pull a spacecraft off of a shelf ready to go. You've got to build and design the thing. It strikes me as this problem of, or is there a problem of workforce facing, not just JPL but aerospace in general?
Laurie Leshin: Right. I think at the beginning you said these are challenges that JPL has faced. So first of all, I would say that every single org we have talked to since the IRB report, the Psyche Independent Review Report came out, has said we were looking at the slides and we were going to say scratch out JPL and put X aerospace company, X NASA center that we could all ... This manifested in such a way that it's making visible to everyone the challenges that we're facing across the aerospace sector with the fantastic growth of the commercial space sector with growth, with the founding of the Space Force and growth in military and intelligence community space work, with growth in civilian space work, with growth in international space work. There's no doubt that there's a huge amount of opportunity space out there. It means that our employees can be, not just JPL employees, but employees in the aerospace sector can be really picky and really think about where they want to go and what they want to do. Frankly, I think that's going to make us all better. It's going to make us need to be better employers. It's going to make us need to have a better employee value proposition. We were just talking about our employee value proposition with some colleagues just a little while ago here.
Casey Dreier: I actually wanted to touch on that very issue. That was one of the key items called out in the report was retention and successful hiring of talented and promising individuals. This strikes me as something as an irony, which is that for so long NASA has been trying to build a commercial space sector and to make it more vigorous and expansive, but it seems now that there may be some hemorrhaging of talent of the people that NASA paid to train, invested in and requires to operate on the government side being lured into the private sector. It just seems like this funny problem that you have now, you're competing with the policy, almost an inadvertent outcome of a policy that NASA is trying to pull from. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly changes the game for you, I imagine.
Laurie Leshin: It does change the game, but in the best possible way. Look, the last time I was at NASA in 2010, 2011 timeframe is when we were starting commercial crew and we were really working to help support the commercial space sector's emergence, and guess what? We were wildly successful. So now there's not only government money in that, but a ton of private money. It means that there are really interesting emerging places to work for people with background in the aerospace field. This is, I think, the best possible problem to have. Frankly, it's not a bad thing if more people in our business get more different experiences, that there aren't only one or two places to work. I really do believe it, even though it can be painful in the near term. We've got to work on making sure this is a great place to work, that we've got exciting and challenging and inspiring missions for folks at JPL to work on and that when someone leaves that might be great for a few years, and maybe they'll come back with a different set of experiences that can help us be better.
Casey Dreier: What do you think JPL's argument is? Why come to work for JPL? I imagine you just been thinking about this a lot, or what can you do at JPL as this quasi, this federally-funded research and development center to compete with a private sector, 'cause you have more restrictions from government? You have more restrictions in various ways, but how do you pitch yourself as a great place to come and work, or what are you doing to change?
Laurie Leshin: So this is about our mission and our missions. We are fundamentally an R&D organization that's working to answer the most profound scientific questions that you can ask. Things like, "Are we alone in the universe?" Things like, "How are we going to adapt to and prevent more climate change?" These are really challenging things and we do it at JPL with a specific approach that says, "We don't want to build the 10th something or even the fifth something. We want to build the first of a kind. We want to build something that's one of a kind. We want to build something that really drives the frontiers of capabilities for robotic missions," and that is really inspiring to a lot of folks. We want to fly helicopters on Mars. We want to do that thing that no one's ever done before. For a lot of folks, that's going to be really exciting, and we want to do it in a way that frankly, offers people some flexibility, that really respects families, that embraces everyone as who they are. We want to do it with an environment that is truly diverse and inclusive and we're working on that to make it better, but we want to be a great place to work. We clearly have great things to work on and we're working every single day to continue to make this a great place to work.
Casey Dreier: Are there things you can talk about already in terms of what's changed in terms of how you're approaching workforce after this and just in general from what you are bringing to the role?
Laurie Leshin: Well, we've been focused in a few areas. So one thing that we announced very recently is, believe it or not, we did not have paid parental leave at JPL. We've just announced eight weeks of paid parental leave for both parents and for after birth, after adoption, after a new foster child might come into the home. This is basic stuff and I was really pleased that we were able to work with our colleagues at Caltech to get that done. It's amazing how much of a difference things like that really make to folks, so I'm glad we were able to do that. We're getting ready to roll out our diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility strategy and it's a very JPL kind of strategy because it's really focused on trying to invent the science of all this, to really do experiments that we can measure how well they work. So we're embracing our geekiness. Even when it comes to things like DEIA, JPL has that history of being a place that just embraces everybody's inner geek and outer geek. Actually, it's not just inner here-
Casey Dreier: I don't think it's hidden.
Laurie Leshin: ... it's all over the place. The geekiness is everywhere.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Well, it strikes me, again, seeing this as how things that are at first a crisis can actually be this tipping point into action and clarification point, and perhaps Psyche is acting to this-
Laurie Leshin: You bet.
Casey Dreier: ... to this degree. Really, again, just talking about, again, this huge increase in demand for aerospace worker. Here in Washington State, Blue Origin was hiring, I think hired 5,000, 6,000 people in the last couple of years. There's only so many people to pull from.
Laurie Leshin: Right.
Casey Dreier: You talk about DEIA and it becomes this obvious solution like, "We need to make sure we're pulling talent from every possible place."
Laurie Leshin: All the brains, we need all the brains. Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Yeah.
Laurie Leshin: Yeah.
Casey Dreier: I like the way you're putting that. It's the zombie-like approach to this.
Laurie Leshin: Yes.
Casey Dreier: But at the same time, what has Psyche revealed for the JPL management, because a lot of critiques came for management that there wasn't enough penetration into the project, that problems didn't get reported up? I don't really need to litigate. This is all covered in the board of the specifics of Psyche, but how are you using this information for Europa Clipper and particularly Mars Sample Return, which I see the consequences of Psyche are not great? We're talking about-
Laurie Leshin: Sure.
Casey Dreier: ... delaying VERITAS a couple of years. We're talking probably on the order of tens, if not 100 or so million dollars delay, but Mars Sample Return is spending more per year than NASA's entire Heliophysics Division right now. So a delay there from management issues could be catastrophic to some degree. So how has that been informing these other areas that are even larger and more complex than Psyche?
Laurie Leshin: Yeah, so we're working our way through what we heard from the IRB where we've got a response team that's being led by one of our most senior leaders. They're really, again, in a very JPL way, turning these things around and looking at them from all angles and thinking about how to address ... I'll say Psyche's already addressed everything in the report. They were doing it in real time and that's one reason why they got continued and they'll launch next October. The first thing we rolled out was an update to our remote work policy at JPL because this was ... So I think one thing to really ask, and again, I wasn't here for most all of this, so for me, it's all coming in with a curiosity about, "Okay, how much of this is our real deep-seated, long-standing issues, and how much of this was really exacerbated by the fact that there is literally no other mission whose development?" Was so on top of the pandemic as Psyche was. They were confirmed six months before the pandemic. Almost their entire build was on top of this, and that is a huge challenge for a team, especially a distributed team who was flying around a lot to be together and even those who were in the same place, they couldn't be all in the same place. It's quite clear that the way that we had implemented Return to Lab at JPL, which happened in early May right before I started actually was okay, but it was like doing remote and hybrid work, this sounds harsher than I mean it, but the worst possible way because people would come to lab and then they'd be sitting on WebEx all day because their teammates weren't here. So we started looking at the data about who's actually here and it wasn't enough, and we really went back to first principles about this work that we do. When you're building something that's one of a kind, first of a kind with really diverse in terms of background, in terms of expertise, diverse, large teams, it's really tough to do that when you're not together pretty much at all. So this idea that the work we do is most effectively done on lab, not every day, not every task, but there has to be more of that together and that you have to balance individuals' desire for flexibility with the need for teams to really work together in person more. We went through and tried to simplify it and make it more consistent. We said to the projects, "We think you should be calling people in not every day, but you should be setting some of the days that people are here, whether that's on Psyche, it's Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Monday, Wednesday, Thursday." We're really empowering projects to do that, to have those times when their teams are together. Again, we've given people till the end of January for this adjustment because I'm not going all Elon here, "Everybody get in here by Monday." We're not doing that. People need time to get their lives together, but we got to get not just the work done but the job done. We need the teams together more to really do that. So we've put into place a change there, and that's a big change. I have to say, I've spent a lot of time talking to the community about my thinking about it and the rationale. Not everybody loves it, but people are doing better with it than I might have anticipated because they understand that's what the mission's about. I'll just say one more thing about it. I know I'm going on here a little bit, but we also do have some people who live elsewhere who are members of our team. In some cases that's okay, but if you live far away or if you're working fully remotely, and again, some teams and some jobs lend themselves to that, but we still need you to get together, say at least quarterly with your team to make sure that people are getting the FaceTime they need, to make sure that young people are really building those relationships with more senior mentors. I can talk to you more about this big engaged JPL thing that I did where I had 2,500 JPLers that I talked to over the course of a couple of weeks and what we heard from the young JPLers about knowledge transfer and how much they're desperate for mentorship.
Casey Dreier: Is it fair to characterize Psyche as an unintended experiment of building a spacecraft in a hybrid remote working environment?
Laurie Leshin: Yes. Let's never do that again. Yeah. At least with the global pandemic part on top of it-
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Let's-
Laurie Leshin: [inaudible 00:33:10] some hybrid in there. But yes, yes, unintended experiment, which we will learn from.
Casey Dreier: It's actually amazing how close it came to launching, all things considered.
Laurie Leshin: Well, I actually think that's right, Casey. Look, it's not great that we shipped a spacecraft to the Cape and then later decided it wasn't ready for launch. I get why that's not great, but the truth is that they overcame almost every obstacle against incredible odds. I think we should be honestly celebrating this team, and then they raised their hand. They didn't launch when they shouldn't have. They raised their hand. It's really hard to do that and said, "We're not ready and we shouldn't do this. It's too big a risk," and that team is fully staffed healthy, moving forward, crushing it. I'm going to be sitting with them tomorrow morning for their end-of-year, all-hands meeting. They're having all-hands meetings every week now just to make sure everybody's communicating just to thank them for what an extraordinary thing they've done in getting this mission back on track.
Casey Dreier: Again, it just strikes me that there's one thing that can't be built remotely, physical spacecraft, the bespoke, difficult, challenging thing, by definition of what you said, you're characterizing what JPL likes to do.
Laurie Leshin: Yeah. Just to say one more thing about it, the other thing I was really impressed with the IRB is they pulled on something that I knew existed, but I hadn't really thought of as well, which is, they called it the informal safety net. They talked about this fact that when you're doing things that are incredibly hard, stuff happens, stuff always happens, it comes up. Every single day on this lab, people are walking down the hall to their neighbors saying, "I can't figure this thing out," or, "Something doesn't feel right here. What is your thought about this?" Or doing it in the cafeteria at the coffee cart. That's what they called the informal safety net, and it's been really important here over time. The senior people who know everything lend their expertise informally across every project at this lab and that's obliterated in COVID. We all know that we missed those hallway conversations. What we didn't realize is how essential they are to being able to launch a spacecraft on time. So that, again, really suggests that more time together on lab, it doesn't have to be every day, it doesn't have to be every person every day, but more time together is really essential.
Casey Dreier: Does it help that other tech companies are also reaching the same conclusion, so it's not like JPL is just some outlier on this conclusion? It seems like a lot of companies are realizing and really trying to, at least for management, pushing people to come back.
Laurie Leshin: Yeah. Lots are, including the Googles and the Apples, actually. We're hearing they're going back to three days a week and many in the aerospace business are doing the same. When you're trying to do hard stuff, none of us can do it alone. We've got to do it together.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Casey will be back in a moment with more of his interview with Laurie Leshin, the director of JPL. But first, a brief message from my secret clone. There's so much going on in the world of space science and exploration, and we are here to share it with you. Hi, I'm Sarah. Are you looking for a place to get more space? Catch the latest space exploration news, pretty planetary pictures and Planetary Society publications on our social media channels. You can find The Planetary Society on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Make sure you like and subscribe so you never miss the next exciting update from the world of planetary science.
Casey Dreier: I want to ask a little bit about being director of JPL. First, something I think is worth delving into a little bit is, correct me if I'm wrong here, but from my understanding, being director is not being lord and master of the entire-
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What?
Casey Dreier: ... JPL-
Sarah Al-Ahmed: What?
Casey Dreier: ... organization. Well, you can correct me. You don't have a pure autocratic rule. You have a board of directors you work for-
Laurie Leshin: [inaudible 00:37:11] right here in my desk. No.
Casey Dreier: Tell me what it's like. Who do you answer to, and what do you have to do in that? What does your role have to interface with in order to help bring these types of changes?
Laurie Leshin: Yeah, sure. There's the upward interface and then there's the inward interface. So upward, I work for the president of Caltech and there's also a committee of the Caltech board that provides oversight of JPL, which has incredible people on it, like the former CEO of Orbital, the former CEO of Northrop Grumman, the last secretary of the Air Force. There's some pretty good people on there who know what they're doing, so they're great to work with. At NASA, obviously interface a ton with the head of the science mission directorate and who's now changing; Thomas Zurbuchen stepped down and seeing who comes next there, but also the leadership of the agency. So we have a lot of stakeholders, how we say. Then internally, I have a leadership team, the senior leaders here, and then what we call our executive council, which is the representatives of every directorate across the lab. We work together to conceptualize changes. The updated remote work policy is one that we worked on hard together. But then I think for me, the real opportunity is trying to reach down more into the organization and really hear more directly from folks who are working on the front lines, help all of us again, hear those voices and work together on what are going to be the ... can't be a list of 500 things to change. It's going to have to be a short list, and that's actually the process we're in the middle of right now where we did something I mentioned earlier called Engage JPL, where 200 people at a time, engaged 2,500 JPLers each in a two-hour session. So I had 13 of these two-hour sessions, 11 of them in person, two of them online where we talked about the future of the lab and just pulled a lot of input out of folks about things that were on their minds. Very interestingly, a lot of things were on their minds. Same things we heard from the Psyche IRB, hiring and retention, making sure that people see career paths and knowledge transfer, making sure that they're engaging with their leadership and management. So I think a lot of the responsibility in a job like mine is to paint a picture of where we're trying to go as clearly as we can and then just help equip people with the tools to be a part of us getting there. I can't pull them there myself. We've got to let people come there of their own accord, but we've got to make it easy for them to do so, and that's what a lot of good management is about. It's just about painting that picture and about knocking down some barriers, building out some tools, and then building some tools around accountability too; making sure that we all embrace what we need to do, whether that's perform a bit better on cost, that's one for us and think about how we make it easy for, not easy, but easier, a little easier for people to contribute to the solutions there.
Casey Dreier: I was reflecting on your unique mix of qualities that you brought to the job. Obviously you had the scientific background, you had time at NASA, but you were a university president.
Laurie Leshin: Yep.
Casey Dreier: I was thinking that in the context of how we've had a recent run of politicians being administrators of NASA in the sense that a university president generally, to me, seems to be like you're a consensus builder.
Laurie Leshin: Yes.
Casey Dreier: You're constantly working with various aspects of the university trying to find commonalities and bring people together. You develop, I imagine, some skill at exactly what you were just talking about in addition to your scientific and technical background. How has that come into play in this role? Is that in a way you expected or in an unexpected way?
Laurie Leshin: Yeah. So far, it has. It's interesting, at a university you work with tenured faculty who may or may not do anything you say, right? So yeah, in that sense, leading through influence and the high value of a really good compelling idea, a good compelling vision, thinking about how resources are deployed to drive the change that you want to drive. But often, it's more about shining a light on a challenge and then just unleashing the creativity of the people that you work with to solve it. I did a lot of that as a college president, and I think the other way it helps me in this role is because JPL is operated by Caltech, there is very academic side to this role. I'm also a vice president at Caltech and a professor at Caltech. Those Caltech relationships are really important, and working with a board, a higher ed board is something I have a lot of experience with. So both having worked at relatively high levels at NASA and also at a university, it's a good fit.
Casey Dreier: For the governance structure of JPL, how much independence do you have from NASA to begin with? It's this interesting role you play. It's not a NASA center, but obviously NASA provides most of the, if not all-
Laurie Leshin: Yes.
Casey Dreier: ... almost all of the operating funds. So what's that relationship like? 'Cause you were talking about vision and having a vision, it's great, but ultimately, NASA enables you to pursue it or to do the cool stuff, the crazy stuff. What's that relationship like?
Laurie Leshin: It's great, and our vision will only work if it's very highly aligned with NASA's vision. If we were just trying to do something that was orthogonal, that would be a major problem. But luckily, it is very aligned. What we're talking about here is setting priorities for the lab. I even struggle with, "Do you call it a strategic plan, because maybe we shouldn't have our own apart from NASA?" So you're certainly right to pull on the question. But this picture of who we are, this first of one-of-a-kind place that's driving the forefront of robotic space exploration to benefit science and humanity, that's a great vision for us, and one that's totally aligned with NASA. By the way, every dollar we spend, even if it's not a NASA dollar, actually flows through NASA to us, so they're actually involved in all of that, so to make sure that what we're doing is well aligned with the needs of the agency. So if we're doing, say, a project for another government agency or science applications or something that we might be working with NOAA or USGS or something like that, we want to make sure that whatever we're developing there, it actually is going to ultimately support NASA's mission. So we're constantly looking at that and we're hard on ourselves to make sure that's true, and so it makes it easier for NASA to say yes.
Casey Dreier: What's the most important influence on JPL that enables its success? Is it NASA, or would you even say, is that congressional-level priority setting? Where does that come into play in order to give you the freedom and flexibility to pursue these types of goals in a constructive way?
Laurie Leshin: Look, we have a lot of conversations with NASA about what we're working on, and so that probably is the most important set of relationships. Well, Caltech is also very important. I'm not sure we have done a good enough job of really articulating what does it mean that we are NASA's FFRDC? We're the only one. I think sometimes it's a bit like we're another NASA center and sometimes it's a bit like we're a contractor, like aerospace contractors, and we're neither of those things. I'm not always sure that we've actually leveraged our capabilities in the right way. That's something that's on my list of things to try and understand better and think about because those additional flexibilities that you mentioned, they do mean that we can lean forward a bit more at times, that we can perhaps think about innovative partnerships differently. I think there's some things that we could be doing, but again, we can only do them if we are collaborating with NASA really well on those priorities. So that's definitely on the agenda.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, it's just a strange place to occupy really, when you think about it.
Laurie Leshin: It's an exciting one. I think of it as interesting. It's unique and that should be a good thing.
Casey Dreier: I was bringing this up a little bit 'cause I saw that you hosted at the moment ranking member of CJS Appropriations in the Senate, Senator Jerry Moran from Kansas.
Laurie Leshin: Yes. He was in town.
Casey Dreier: That seems to be such a great and exciting thing to be able to do, but also, just a very practical thing. It connects it for them-
Laurie Leshin: Yes.
Casey Dreier: ... who are writing and it ultimately approving the budgets that flow through NASA to you to see the type of work that you're doing. So when you bring a senator like that, what do you show them? What do you think shows off JPL in a situation like that?
Laurie Leshin: Yeah. Well, usually the way it works, and it did in this case that we hear from Legislative Affairs at NASA, that Senator Moran's in town and would like to stop by JPL. We're always happy to host members and senators because it's so true, it makes it real. It's one thing when it's a few lines in a bill and, of course, incredibly important what they do there, but to make it really real. So we showed him Europa Clipper in the clean room. Of course, it just happened it had been in this fixture back, far away from the windows just that day or the day before. They had moved it right up next to the windows, and we came in and it was right there. I was like, "Oh, my gosh, this never happens." Then while we were standing there, they actually tipped it over on its side and started not spinning fast, but turning it around a rotisserie chicken. People were like, "I been here 30 years, I've never seen anything like this." He was like, "Oh, come on, you just are doing this." Like, "No, this is happening." Then we took him up the hill to our thermal vac chamber where NISAR, our next big earth science mission that we're doing with the Indians, they were about to close the door on the thermal vac chamber, but he got to see the huge radar right in there. So it was pretty special. I don't know if he realized how special it was, but he really got to see a lot. Then we went to our mission control center and we talked to him, gave him a briefing on Mars Sample Return, because again, biggest thing as you said, and that is certainly the most complex planetary mission ever attempted, robotic planetary mission, let's say, ever attempted. It's going to be really important to have congressional support for that, so we had a great couple of hours.
Casey Dreier: Fun place to be able to show off, I think. Again, do you wait for generally interest to come your way or is this like an active way trying to invite people to come and visit the lab?
Laurie Leshin: Well, there's always an open invitation, but no, we tend to work through NASA on these things and really try to make sure they're very aware of conversations that we're having 'cause we're on that team, or we're all on one team there.
Casey Dreier: We've touched on a few things about where JPL is dealing with these, almost like a choke point or you're just doing so much right now. Then, of course, so much is with COVID, and one of the questions I had particularly in relation with Psyche was, how do you know what is in a sense, real or systemic in terms of the problems you're trying to deal with? How much of it was just this bizarre, hopefully, one-off in our lifetimes consequences of a global respiratory virus that's swept through the world in three years? How do you try to choose, because I could see overreacting potentially, assuming something is systemic where it's really just a bizarre reaction or consequence of COVID?
Laurie Leshin: So you're asking the $64 million question. This is exactly the conversations we're having internally all the time right now. So there was all the stuff you mentioned about management, oversight and all of this. The truth is that the management within the project didn't realize what was happening, so there's no way that at the director level they would've realized it. So the worry is we're going to put in a whole bunch more bureaucracy to deal with management oversight, when in fact, what we need to do is figure out, "How do we just make sure that the people who are on the front lines with the issues are raising them up appropriately internally?" Yes, I already am doing more in terms of interacting with the projects already, just having heard the initial feedback from the IRB. But we've got to really get to the root of the challenge and figure out how much of it is COVID related. We're trying to make that balance and not overcorrect, but I think for that reason, it's not going to be a one-off set of responses. We're going to try some things. I'm a big believer in testing as you go and learning along the way and adjusting, not waiting until you have the perfect answer, but actually, excuse me, implementing some things and then assessing how we're doing and keeping the questions going. I think that's going to be really essential here.
Casey Dreier: Continuous iteration, basically, right?
Laurie Leshin: Continuous iteration, that's right. There are a few things where I think some people here, and again, I'm new, but would say, "Yeah, that's been a long standing issue and we're going to have to break that and reform it a bit." So we're going to work on some of those things too and those will be harder, but we're going to go after them. This gives us that chance to do it.
Casey Dreier: What would you characterize as the most important near-term or immediate challenge that JPL is facing?
Laurie Leshin: For us, we really do need to keep focused on the work ahead of us. The next year, year- and-a-half of work, we're going to be very busy and we need to stay focused on making sure that work is done and done well, not taking our eye off the ball. So it's fairly tactical I would say. I think if we do well in the near term, the long term will take care of itself. Now, not that means you can not pay attention to the long term. Of course, we pay attention to it. You mentioned, are we too full to take any new work? Well, the truth is, it takes years for a new project to get started. So by the time anything new gets started, even think about new frontiers proposals, by the time something is selected, Clipper will have launched, NISAR will have launched, so it's just not an issue. We will have the workforce to support future work. I'm not worried about that, but let's make sure that we're positioning ourselves to win that future work by executing on our current work well, and so that really is my focus. I'm talking to Psyche, Clipper, NISAR and MSR every other week. With me, like a dedicated, "How's it going? What do you need? What's going great? What's going badly? What's coming up?" And just trying to help support these project managers as they knock down one problem after the next.
Casey Dreier: Because I could also imagine you can only do so much with hiring new people in that same time period too. You have the workforce you have at this point and it's about working through these big problems. You mentioned cost earlier and I just wanted to touch on that. I was thinking about in terms of competition more fierce from private companies, private companies can offer equity in those companies. They can offer different types of compensation. I guess JPL employees are slightly different because they're technically, or is that true, part of Caltech-
Laurie Leshin: We are.
Casey Dreier: ... a private entity? So not civil servants in the same sense then?
Laurie Leshin: They're not civil servants, but we are audited under federal guidelines.
Casey Dreier: Can you compete in terms of compensation? If so, how does that interface with trying to keep costs? It strikes me seeming like labor to me is the key cost of all spacecraft development-
Laurie Leshin: It is.
Casey Dreier: ... 'cause it's just time of highly-skilled or highly-paid individuals who also happen to live, unfortunately, I guess, or fortunately for some, in one of the most expensive metro areas in the country. You're not building this in Alabama or Florida. This is smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles.
Laurie Leshin: But a lot of aerospace companies are in expensive places.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, well a lot of it, yeah-
Laurie Leshin: But yes.
Casey Dreier: That's true, but it strikes me that there's a premium in even to attract talent here, you need to be able to compete at a urban high cost of living center. So how are those compatible ultimately? I guess we've seen Discovery go up to billion-dollar emissions. We've seen Dragonfly, which is not a JPL mission, go up to $2 billion for New Frontiers. Is this just some inevitable function of long-term wage inflation? Are there ways to make efficiency that you're looking at as well?
Laurie Leshin: Well, I think that it's both. So we do not have the same salaries as some of the well-funded aerospace companies, but we are better than government salaries. So we're somewhere in between on that. We try and offer good benefits and other things, but most importantly, we offer a really compelling mission and a really great work environment. So those two things are really what differentiates us. But it is a struggle and it's more of a struggle than it used to be when we're competing with aerospace companies. Like we are seeing everywhere, so the cost challenges that we are facing, some of it has to do with increased cost of labor for sure. For us, also, we're seeing fairly significant challenges with what we would call procurements, which is when we go out of house to get something, we're now seeing much longer lead times. We're seeing much higher costs. Again, ultimately most of those are costs of labor too, at the companies. So yeah, it's not yet something that NASA has fully come to grips with, I think. We're talking about it a lot, that it's real and it's not, well, it's getting slightly better. I think some of the supply chain stuff is getting slightly better. The costs, they only tend to go in one direction. They only go up, they hardly ever come down. So then for us, you're left with the question of, "Okay, so how can we do things more efficiently? How can we build something amazing with fewer people?" That's really where I think there is some opportunity to look at tailoring some of our processes. We've inevitably, over the 86 years that this lab has been in existence, grown up some bureaucracy around that. So we need to continuously work to ask, "Is that high value? Are we doing this as smartly as we can? Are we making sure that we've got the best people around working on these things? How are we unleashing them to solve problems in an efficient way?" So those are all conversations that we're going to be having on the lab.
Casey Dreier: Is it fair then to characterize that maybe the most important general long-term policy that benefits not just JPL, but workforce issues with all of NASA is mission, is having a clear, inspiring mission that's boundary pushing really at the core?
Laurie Leshin: It is. You said it very, very well. For a place like JPL having missions that really are, where we're able to infuse new technology, where we're able to try something different, that is essential to having a place like JPL. It's interesting, and some of the competed missions and even some of the Decadal Survey missions, if the answer is, "No new technology, don't do anything new," I worry that in the long term that sets us up to drive away our most capable folks. They will go somewhere else and find it in the private sector if they can't find it through NASA funding. So we work very hard to invest in technology, to invest in infusing that technology. Mars Helicopter is a great example, right?
Casey Dreier: Perfect example of that.
Laurie Leshin: Perfect example. But you know what else was a perfect example? Mars Pathfinder. The Sojourner Rover 25 years ago, that was a tech demo and we would not have spirit, opportunity, curiosity, perseverance if it wasn't for that cute little rover that started as a tech demo. That is what we do best at JPL, is we think of those slightly crazy things and we figure out how to try the, and then it ends up driving the whole program. So if there's one thing I could wish for the future, it's that we are able to continue to do that, that we're able to continue to drive those frontiers. That's how you attract a great workforce and that's how you build a great place to work.
Casey Dreier: There's an interesting tension there that in order to have total cost assurance that you'll never have something like another Psyche or another cost overrun or another JWST, you want predictability, familiarity, all of the things that were just the opposite of inspiring. So in a sense, you have to lean into the risk in a smart way in order to really provide what you're talking about. None of this is risk free-
Laurie Leshin: Correct.
Casey Dreier: That's what brings out, in a sense, the best in the workforce. But I think that's the interesting thing for policymakers to either remember or to really embrace themselves, is that if you want the government-funded stuff to stay at the forefront of this, failure's going to have to be by definition part of this.
Laurie Leshin: Failure and not exact cost predictability at the very beginning in Phase A when you're just starting something, right? Obviously when we make a cost commitment, at confirmation, we should really be fairly confident, but we're in this place right now with Mars Sample Return. Again, it's the most complex planetary mission ever attempted, and we really want to do it well. We want to make sure we've thought it through. So we're working on those things right now. We're pushing really hard to have the team try and do that in a cost-constrained way. It's a huge challenge, but a really exciting one, actually. I couldn't ask for a better challenge.
Casey Dreier: Dr. Leshin, I really appreciate your time today. Good luck with everything as you approach those next couple of years at JPL with you and your team and all the teams working on these great missions, and hope to speak to you again on the other side of this and talk about what worked and hopefully, very few things that didn't work.
Laurie Leshin: Thank you. We're going to work to make that true. Thanks, Casey. I appreciate it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, that was yet again, another fantastic interview, Casey. I always learn so much every time I listen to your conversations.
Casey Dreier: Thanks, Sarah. Yeah, again, that was a great one. She's always very interesting to talk to. Again, I appreciate the time that she spent with us.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, if anybody out there wants to learn even more about what's going on with this show, you can check out our Space Policy Newsletter. When does that come out, Casey?
Casey Dreier: It comes out roughly a week after this show does, so middle of the month on a monthly basis. It's free, you don't even have to be a member, right? It's like the down link but less frequent. I write a little essay about what's been going on in space in the last month that link to some major space policy topics, that link to the show. It's a great way to keep up to date, spend just a couple of minutes reading it. It'll probably, I don't have data to support this, but I'd say probably puts you in the top 99% of space policy experts in the world if you're reading a monthly Space Policy Newsletter on it. Not that it's a huge competition for that, but you'd become an expert, I'd say, merely by subscribing for free. You can find that at planetary.org, but you can just search for it. It's called The Space Advocate Planetary Society, or it's on planetary.org/issues page, has a sign-up link for our newsletter.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Excellent. I feel like if we had the opportunity, it'd be really fun to send everyone a sticker that's like Space Policy, but anyway-
Casey Dreier: We'll pitch that to our development colleagues and see what they think of it, or Space Policy Expert, or Ask Me About Space Policy, which I assume everyone wants to, right? If I had a tee-shirt with that, that would actually be a great tee-shirt. But sometimes people don't share our interests, which is always a good reminder sometimes. I was very excited, I got a tee-shirt that had the Frank Drake equation on it.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I remember that shirt. I pointed it out when I saw you wearing it.
Casey Dreier: Exactly, it's such a cool shirt. I thought, "All right, when I go to parties and stuff, I'll wear this shirt 'cause it'll be such a great conversation starter." People will go, "Oh, what's that cool equation on your shirt with all the awesome decals around it?" Literally zero people outside of The Planetary Society have asked me about that shirt and I realized, How often do people want to start a conversation about an equation at a party?" But maybe I'm just going to the wrong parties, frankly, [inaudible 01:02:13]
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Maybe.
Casey Dreier: ... more equation-minded ones. Anyway, Ask Me About Space Policy, maybe that's a different subject. Maybe that's an opener for more people.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll see what we can do about that. But anybody out there who might want to buy that tee-shirt, you've got to be a space advocate and your efforts make a huge impact on the future of space exploration. So I cannot thank you enough from everyone here at The Planetary Society. It really makes a difference. If you aren't already a member, please consider joining us. You can go to planetary.org/join. Your contributions and enthusiasm really make our space policy work and this show possible, so thank you. Casey, seriously, thank you again for letting me join you on my first Space Policy Edition.
Casey Dreier: So happy to have you here, Sarah. Congratulations again. I will see you next month.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, see you next month. Until next time, everyone. Ad astra.