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Review Panels Ensure USGS, NASA Don’t Pay ‘the Price of Failure’ with Landsat 9

Agencies like NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that commit multiple millions of dollars to put Landsat satellites into space need to know that the spacecraft, the sensors onboard, the ground system operating the satellite, and the launch vehicle are all designed and built the right way.

Steve Zahn speaking at Landsat 9 Ground System review panel
Stephen Zahn, USGS' Landsat 9 Ground System Manager, presents to the Landsat 9 Ground System review panel during the Critical Design Review in late September 2018 in Brandon, SD. (Credit: Steve Young, SGT, Inc. Public domain.)

They help ensure that through review boards—independent panels comprised of subject matter experts who routinely examine the different mission elements and assess the veracity of their design, development, construction, testing, and integration.

If a potential issue shows up along the way, the board puts out a Request for Action (RFA) or an Advisory, and the matter is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction before the process moves too much farther along. It’s an approach that results in “a huge success rate in this business, because the price of failure is incredibly high,” says Tim Rykowski, NASA’s Space Network Systems Manager and a member of the review panel that’s been assessing the ground system design and development for Landsat 9, which is scheduled for launch in December 2020.

Rykowski and Bruce Quirk, the L9 Ground System review panel chair who just retired as the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Liaison for the USGS, sat down at the recent L9 Ground System Critical Design Review in Brandon, SD, to discuss their roles and responsibilities on that review board.

Is this review board a partner in the process of building the Landsat 9 Ground System, or what is its role?

BQ: “We’re really (part of the) checks and balances. We have wide expertise on this board on all the different components of the ground system, from the mission management systems to the data processing algorithms. We have enough experience that we can ask questions, or we might see issues, and then bring attention to those issues. So, we’re a partner in a way, but we’re also stepping back and taking a critical look … at the system and the process to see if there’s issues that we think need attention.”

Would a review board ever bring a project like this to a stop?

BQ: “We’re not going to bring it to a stop. But you can bring up serious enough issues that they have to address them. And I should also mention, it’s not just looking for issues. We’re also looking for positive things. You’ll hear a lot of comments about things we’re worried about or are interested in, but there’s also a lot of positive comments. What you’ll see in our report, which we write for this team and also for the larger Landsat 9 mission board, will have both those positive and negative comments.”

Who do you answer to ultimately?

TR: “I think the constituency quite candidly is the project here. It’s the Landsat 9 project. These are reviews that, if you look at how reviews are budgeted for in NASA, the Landsat 9 mission pays for our support for these reviews. They’re the beneficiary of these independent reviews in terms of the advice that we provide, the feedback that we give.”

How do taxpayers who fund missions like this benefit from your reviews?

BQ: “When we’re asking these questions, we’re also concerned about costs. We’re concerned about schedule. For me, a lot of this is in the final product—the information, the data. That’s why we have (Boston University professor) Curtis Woodcock on the panel, because he can look at it from the science viewpoint, but also, from a public viewpoint. Are we making the products and deriving the information that people need? That science needs? That the public needs?”

Are you doing this on behalf of NASA and USGS, or are you doing it on behalf of the user community?

BQ: “I think it’s all of those. We certainly answer to the larger Landsat 9 review board. We want this mission to be a success just as much as the teams do. We like to think that the reviews that we do—the comments, the criticisms, the compliments—are all part of making the team produce a better product that will serve us as well, because a lot of us on this board are users of the data.”

So, what is your particular expertise in being part of this board?

BQ: “When I was at EROS (Earth Resources Observation and Science Center) … there used to be a satellite systems branch that had responsibility for all of the Landsat operations at EROS, and I had responsibility for that branch for a number of years. And so, I was on the other side of this in the sense that I was developing and operating Landsat systems. When I went to (USGS) Headquarters I had responsibility for the Landsat activity, and relaying all the information and activities up to higher management. So, I’ve had a lot of ground system experience, and not just in systems development, but also in operating them and using them.”

TR: “We all have various separate discipline expertise. But, ground systems in general is where I’ve worked. I’ve been with NASA for 35 years. I’ve been working with ground system design, development, test, and operations since I started working for the agency in ’83. I was in a similar position to (USGS Landsat 9 Project Manager) Brian (Sauer) on a mission called GPM, which launched at Goddard years ago. I was the ground system manager of that. It was my responsibility to use civil servants and contractors to build up the ground system capabilities, similar to what Brian’s responsibilities are for Landsat 9.”

If NASA and USGS are building and operating Landsat 9, where’s the independence on a board comprised of NASA and USGS personnel?

BQ: “Trust me if I say, none of these guys are easy (on the design and development of the L9 Ground System). These guys (on the board), if they have questions and issues, they’ll bring them up. They really are there to look at it hard and look at what’s going on, and why it’s going on, and the cost, schedule, and resource usage, all the development activities. Now, are we truly independent? Probably not in the sense that we don’t have outsiders coming in and participating, but the review board members are independent and not part of the Landsat 9 project.”

TR: “Well, I would say the independence is, we’re not part of the Landsat project. NASA Goddard is a big place. Between civil servants and contractors, we’ve got approximately 10,000 employees, so you can be an engineer on another project but have enough discipline expertise to help out a similar project that’s going through a design review cycle, or whatever the milestone is. That’s where the independence comes from.”

Is there any role for this board in looking at whether the money for Landsat 9 is spent well?

BQ: “When you talk about spending millions of dollars on a ground system, we have to ensure that we’re spending the right dollars in the right places. And we have to explain that to upper management, because that’s where they’re going to ask the same questions. Why are we spending millions of dollars on this ground system? Why can’t we just get the commercial sector to do it? So, we have to be able to say, ‘No, this is the most cost effective, best approach to getting a ground system for Landsat 9.’ And as long as the USGS is a partner in this program, that says, ‘OK NASA, you build them and launch them, and USGS, you operate them,’ we want to make sure that we get the bang for our buck because bucks are always tight.”

TR: “We have a role, I think, in ensuring that there is a proper budget for the project, and that it’s properly allocated to technical elements within the project. So, I would say indirectly, yes. I mean, what we can’t do is directly advocate to USGS, for example, that you’ve got to give the Landsat 9 project more money for these things. What we can do is compile data that says, ‘Based on our experience, here’s where we think your budget is adequate. Here’s where we think your budgets have maybe some shortfalls.’ Then it’s really the project’s job to advocate for themselves with the folks within their agencies that they work with on funding.”

Photo of Landsat 9 Ground System Review Panel
Members of the Landsat 9 Ground System review panel listen to presentations made in September 2018 at the Critical Design Review held in Brandon, SD. (Credit: Steve Young, SGT, Inc. Public domain.)

Is the review board concerned about deadlines and whether they’re being met?

BQ: “Yes, one of our concerns is the schedule and whether it’s being met, and what kind of margin (in days) is available if an issue comes up.”

TR: “A review board’s job is to determine the adequacy of the profile to the mission schedule that’s being proposed. If we say, ‘We think you might need some more resources in this certain area,’ that’s our job to recommend that. It’s not our job to advocate for it. Nor is it our job to try and find root cause for something like that. It’s just an assessment of current schedule status as presented to us. Their management is responsible for making sure they meet their deadlines. It’s not the review board’s job to manage the progress against their schedule.”

Do review boards, either this one specifically or in general, have any kind of accountability if something goes wrong once the satellite is launched?

BQ: “I’d like to think the members of our review board take their jobs very seriously to ensure that we catch the issues. Our findings are reviewed by both the USGS and NASA Landsat 9 projects and the Landsat 9 mission review board, which includes any RFAs and advisories, to ensure that we have a successful mission.”

TR: “So, I would surmise that the answer to that would be ‘yes.’ I would also say that of all the review boards I’ve been involved in, I’ve never experienced that because everything’s been successful.”

How should the public interpret RFAs or Advisories that are put out after reviews?

BQ: “I think a lot of times, when we submit an RFA, we’re doing it in conjunction with project management, that it’s something that they may want to raise to the attention of management or the higher review boards. The thing about an RFA, and an advisory to some degree, is that they do get visibility. So, if there is something we do want to pay attention to, an RFA is a great way to do it because then somebody’s going to have to address it.”

Does the role of this specific review board end with the CDR here in Brandon?

BQ: “No. We’ll continue all the way to the end. We’ll go through the Mission Readiness Review. We’ll go through all of the reviews and come up with a report of our findings for each review.”

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