NASA’s Planetary Science Summer School: Training Future Mission Leaders in a Concurrent Engineering Environment

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Karl L Mitchell, Leslie L Lowes, Charles John Budney and Anita Sohus, California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States
NASA’s Planetary Science Summer School (PSSS) is an intensive program for postdocs and advanced graduate students in science and engineering fields with a keen interest in planetary exploration. The goal is to train the next generation of planetary science mission leaders in a hands-on environment involving a wide range of engineers and scientists. It was established in 1989, and has undergone several incarnations. Initially a series of seminars, it became a more formal mission design experience in 1999. Admission is competitive, with participants given financial support.

The competitively selected trainees develop an early mission concept study in teams of 15-17, responsive to a typical NASA Science Mission Directorate Announcement of Opportunity. They select the mission concept from options presented by the course sponsors, based on high-priority missions as defined by the Decadal Survey, prepare a presentation for a proposal authorization review, present it to a senior review board and receive critical feedback. Each participant assumes multiple roles, on science, instrument and project teams. They develop an understanding of top-level science requirements and instrument priorities in advance through a series of reading assignments and webinars help trainees. Then, during the five day session at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they work closely with concurrent engineers including JPL's Advanced Projects Design Team ("Team X"), a cross-functional multidisciplinary team of engineers that utilizes concurrent engineering methodologies to complete rapid design, analysis and evaluation of mission concept designs. All are mentored and assisted directly by Team X members and course tutors in their assigned project roles. There is a strong emphasis on making difficult trades, simulating a real mission design process as accurately as possible. The process is intense and at times dramatic, with fast-paced design sessions and late evening study sessions.

A survey of PSSS alumni administered in 2013 provides information on the program’s impact on trainees’ career choices and leadership roles as they pursue their employment in planetary science and related fields. Results will be presented during the session, along with highlights of topics and missions covered since the program’s inception.