JPL's Dream Team

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Images from JPL's Project Design Center where Team X conducts many of its workshops and studies.

Team X is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s advanced design team for rapidly generating innovative space mission concepts. The group focuses on advanced concept designs for projects still in the germination stage, in which prospective principal investigators, or PIs, are trying to formulate their ideas into proposals.

The team uses a process called concurrent engineering to do rapid design, evaluation and analysis of early concepts. Concurrent engineering is a type of parallel design process in which experts in various spacecraft systems, like propulsion and communications, work in the same room and communicate in real time.

Traditional mission design is a serial process, explains Rebecca Wheeler, the Advanced Design Methods Manager for Team X. “You have people in separate offices, say a thermal engineer and a power engineer, and they don’t realize how they’re affecting each other’s work,” she says. And even when communication is good, there are lots of delays built into doing design work when those involved are separated.

With Team X, JPL has created a facility in which all the designers, tools and capabilities to do design are gathered together with a conductor leading the study. So if the thermal engineer encounters a problem, they can simply call across the room and work it out, right then and there. Study teams are outfitted with tools like databases, spreadsheets and modeling software, to help capture their ideas, and do it faster. Cost estimates for the various systems are linked together, and the customer is in the room and can find out if their requirements are driving some aspect of the project’s price tag or other issues.

A typical Team X study consists of about 20 designers, representing many disciplines from across the laboratory, along with a study lead and supporting systems personnel. Most studies are completed in just three days, with three-hour sessions each day. Studies can consider complete missions or focus on specific aspects, like mission operations and ground data systems or instrument concepts.

The fast pace at which Team X studies are completed carries with it an added benefit: objectivity. Lead Concurrent Engineer Keith Warfield thinks that’s one of the group’s greatest strengths. “We don’t get any advantage out of one idea over another, personally. So you get a pretty frank discussion here, with people who don’t have a stake in the proposal’s success. They’re going to tell you what’s really going on.”


From experiment to asset

The team began operating in 1995 as something of an experiment, but the concept quickly proved its value in an era when streamlining the mission design process became a budgetary necessity.

“In the old days, we’d set up proposal teams who would work for a year on a proposal and submit it. It could be a costly process,” recalls Wheeler. With the advent of the space agency’s “faster, better, cheaper” mantra, a lot of customers were looking for innovative solutions to help bring the costs of their missions down, and quick turnaround on early design was one way to do that. “We simply didn’t have time or money to continue with the old paradigm,” says Wheeler. “So it was really an outgrowth of that era, having to do a lot more and do it cheaper, which started us on this approach.”

NASA and JPL have moved on from the “faster, better, cheaper” philosophy, and Team X has grown beyond its original impetus to become an institutional asset to JPL. Warfield has been with Team X from the beginning. “NASA was looking for innovative ideas and better ways of doing things,” he says. “The Team X approach, the concurrent design methodology, is one of those that has really stuck over the years.”

Since its inception, Team X has completed more than 900 studies, with new studies booked almost every week. Their concurrent design process is now emulated by other NASA centers and in industry – even netting the group a profile in Time Magazine in 2005.*

Team X allows their clients to customize how many days their study will last, plus how many and what areas of expertise and which types of technologists they wish to involve. The group also conducts student studies in the summer, in which promising students descend on JPL to work on their own concepts with Team X mentors.


Addressing technologies

The team maintains a core group of subsystem experts, which it augments as needed with specialists in additional technical domains. For new and underdeveloped technologies, study chairs can draw upon their own networks of contacts which reach into industry and academia.

Team X also tries to make prospective PIs aware of potential budgetary and scheduling issues associated with developing new technologies to an appropriate readiness level for spaceflight. The actual costs of a technology development program are difficult to pin down, but Team X does provide such estimates on request. “It’s an ad hoc process,” says Warfield. “It has to be. You really have to get out there and connect with the people who are developing these technologies and find out what they think it’s going to take to get it done.”


Early interaction is key

A big part of the Team X philosophy is that good pre-project design is just as important to the long-term health of a mission as staffing it with the very best people. Early advanced study brings various technology factors, like production, packaging and deployment issues, to the attention of PIs. And getting this kind of input early in the process seems to make for stronger proposals and leaner missions.

“That’s where we’ve really helped a lot of the scientists we serve,” says Wheeler. “We’ve had PIs from outside JPL come to Team X who have never had significant interaction with engineers this early.” These communications make an enormous difference later on, by addressing important issues while it is still easy to change things on paper, and before a project has become too attached to a particular technology design.

“When the scientists are able to have early conversations with engineers about ‘how are we really going to do this’ kinds of problems, we find that they’re open to changes in a way that makes things much easier from the engineering standpoint,” Wheeler says. After all, engineering amazing feats of science is nothing new at JPL, but this really is rocket science.


* “Management Tips from the Real Rocket Scientists,” by Jeffrey Kluger with Dan Cray. Time Magazine, November 2005.