Science

New director of NASA’s storied Jet Propulsion Lab takes on ballooning mission costs

On 16 May, planetary scientist Laurie Leshin became director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), one of the world’s leading labs for robotic space science. Coming off the successful landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, JPL is readying several more flagship missions for NASA, including a probe of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, and a complicated campaign to gather the rock samples collected by Perseverance and return them to Earth.

Prior to JPL, Leshin spent 8 years as president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), an influential engineering-focused university in Massachusetts. She’s also an experienced NASA hand, having served in leadership roles at its headquarters and the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. A cosmochemist by training, Leshin has primarily studied the presence of water on Mars and meteorites.

She caught up with Science after her first few weeks on the job. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: While at WPI, you took steps to improve representation of women and people of color. What did you do there, and do you hope to take similar steps at JPL?

A: When I arrived at WPI, literally my first day, there was a folder sitting on my chair of results from a faculty climate survey, which showed that 0% of women faculty were satisfied with our promotion to full professor process. Zero percent. That would seem to be a mandate to change. It took several years. But what we did was broaden the definition of scholarship. We were a place that values project-based learning and community-embedded projects and work in the real world. But our promotion criteria were like a traditional research university. So we broadened the definition of what scholarly work entailed, as long as it’s being disseminated in some way that can be evaluated, and we left it up to the faculty to tell us what those ways were. And all of a sudden, a bunch of faculty who were doing work that was well aligned with the institutional values but wasn’t counting toward promotion, were promoted.

We also created a teaching path to tenure, giving what were previously nontenure track faculty longer-term commitments, as well as a path to tenure. And faculty in contract teaching positions are often more diverse. And so there are benefits of that. When they talk about systemic issues in diversity, that’s how you fix them. You have to rewire the system.

Q: And JPL?

A: JPL is on that journey. They put together initial plans a couple of years ago to bring this front and center. They’ve hired a dedicated leader of inclusion efforts here for the first time and she’s fantastic. … A lot of it is those basic things and being transparent about our processes, making it accessible to everyone. And in some cases, potentially revisiting how we have people advance in the organization.

And look, I also know that representation matters. Just me being the first woman to hold this position in the 85-year history of the place makes a difference. I am so touched, especially hearing from the women in the lab, who wrote me an e-card that probably had 500 signatories. … It’s just incredibly touching to know that my appointment really matters to them.

Q: JPL has an incredible record of success in robotic missions. But you’ve had a lot of cost overruns with the Mars rovers, and we’re seeing it again with Europa Clipper, which will now cost an estimated $5 billion. What steps can JPL and other centers take to stop getting surprised by cost increases?

A: You’re raising an issue that is high on my agenda here. Technical performance at JPL—amazing. Cost and schedule performance, especially on cost, we have not done as well. What’s behind that? Of course, the answer is, it’s complicated. It can be hard to understand and write down early on all the requirements that drive cost. How do we get better at that and start to systematically look at where we are missing?

I want people to know that I take it seriously, because we’re spending American taxpayer dollars here. And also, there’s a lot of good science to do and when missions don’t meet their cost milestones, that means something else probably is getting delayed because as far as I know, there are not infinite resources.

Q: Mars Sample Return will require three spacecraft launches and two landings on Mars to grab the Perseverance rock samples, including a rocket launch back off the martian surface. The project is likely to cost more than $7 billion, split between NASA and European partners. What is your pitch to the taxpayer on why this audacious project is needed?

A: One of the things that made me want to come to JPL right now is that we’re finally going to do this mission. I have been working on Mars Sample Return for 25 years, literally, trying to bring this to fruition. And the fact that we are right on the doorstep of making that happen is so exciting. The samples we’re collecting currently with Perseverance look extraordinary, and the ones to come are going to be even better.

There is no substitute for labs on Earth to tear these rocks apart, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, and really understand their history. And to definitively answer the question of whether or not there has been life on Mars, or even could still be today, we’re not going to do that remotely with a rover. The sensitivity and responsiveness of instruments here on Earth—you do an experiment, you get a surprising result. Now you need to go make a totally different kind of measurement. If you’re on a rover, that means you have to wait 20 more years and build another rover and send a different kind of instrument that maybe or maybe not you can miniaturize enough to put on a rover. On Earth, the next week, you can be in a different kind of lab analyzing a different thing, testing hypotheses in real time. And so it is the way we will get to definitive answers to the question: Is there or has there been life on Mars? And if there was life next door, by the way, then that probably means life is common.

Q: Since the end of Apollo, exploration of the Solar System has primarily been the domain of robots. But now, with Artemis, NASA has credible plans to return astronauts to the Moon. What role do you see JPL playing in human spaceflight?

A: Our role is mostly in the robotic space realm, although we also run the Deep Space Network, the communication system for NASA, which Artemis is going to be using. … And one of the missions [called for] in the latest planetary decadal survey is a long-range robotic rover on the Moon, which would then bring samples to an astronaut team that will return them to Earth. There’s all kinds of ways that humans and robots should be collaborating as we build out the human infrastructure in space.

Q: JPL built the first CubeSats to visit another planet, Mars Cube One, a communications relay that helped with the InSight landing in 2018. What role do you see smaller, riskier missions playing in the lab’s future?

A: There’s a huge opportunity to have a more frequent flight rate with all of the proliferation of launch vehicle providers. There’s a ton more chances to ride to space with smaller things. We definitely need to take advantage of that both for science, but also for technology maturation. So often we get things going in the lab, and it’s very hard to get things space-proven. These increased flight opportunities give us a chance to mature more technology more quickly.

Q: JPL also develops tools for observing Earth from space. And in this realm we’re seeing a lot of commercial investment and competition. How can JPL leverage this activity?

A: We need to work with the commercial entities to help them succeed. An example of that is Carbon Mapper, which looks at methane and carbon dioxide plumes. It’s a hyperspectral instrument. It’s not actually a NASA mission. It’s being funded philanthropically. And they’re going to give away the data, so anybody can see who the big emitters are.

We’re transitioning technology out into the private sector, which is committing to do more builds. … And while they’re doing commercial scale hyperspectral and radars, we are doing next-generation research, things like our radar mission NISAR that we’re doing with India. I was just in the cleanroom last week visiting that and it’s massive and extraordinarily complex, and is going to be on the cutting edge. It lets us keep pushing the boundaries, which is what JPL is best at.

Q: The number of countries and companies operating in space has drastically increased in the past decade. What’s the role for JPL and the traditional NASA centers in this new reality?

A: There is no doubt that there are things that are going to still be primarily governmental, and where JPL’s experience in doing those first-of-a-kind, incredibly challenging things in faraway worlds is going to be incredibly useful. And there are other things where we really should be partnering more to get those done, whether it’s with universities, with companies, or other organizations.

Q: Stepping back from programmatics for a minute, you spent your research career focused on the fate of water in the Solar System. What related results have gotten you the most excited recently?

A: I’m really excited with where Perseverance is right now. Being at the delta and staring at those images and imagining the water environment there—and just really hoping that the rocks have captured and preserved it. I don’t yet have that result. But that’s the result that I’m most anticipating. And then the other one, as a water person, I’m excited about Europa Clipper. What are they going to find about this ocean underneath the icy shell? There’s a strong likelihood that we’re going to be blown away by what Europa has to tell us and that we’re going to figure out that we really do want to go back and land on that ice sheet.

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