As COVID-19 continues to affect the globe, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is no exception. With the health and safety of its staff as a prime concern, JPL has adopted new measures affecting the workplace and operations.
Out of approximately 6,000 active workers, only 2 percent, or roughly 120 people, are present on lab premises. The rest of the staff have switched to a remote working model, a trend that's prevalent across many organizations currently. These critical staff members ensure the lab's prioritized missions continue.
The staff presence on-site may seem minimal; however, this does not signify stalled progress. JPL stated that it currently has about 20 missions in differing stages of development and execution, which are moving forward, albeit at different paces and capacities.
Prioritize missions are those that have a major event approaching, such as a launch or flyby. These missions demand on-lab attention and thus are among the mere 2% of personnel who make it to the lab site for work.
In addition to maintaining momentum on prioritized missions, JPL has also assigned a healthy workforce to ongoing mission operations. These are missions which require continual attention, such as those involving active spacecraft. The teams ensure they operate smoothly despite the pandemic hindrances.
The remote working model, though efficient, has brought about challenges. Tasks that were previously accomplished in person now require innovative solutions. One such challenge that has surfaced is hardware testing.
JPL is famous for spacecraft and instrument development, thus requiring special facilities for tests and operations. The complex and intricate nature of this work made the transition to remote operations quite a challenge. Yet, the overwhelming dedication and teamwork displayed have made the seemingly impossible become the new normal.
The focus on safety has led to improvements and advancements in remote operations. JPL has had to find new means of accomplishing necessary tasks while adhering to social distancing and self-isolation rules. These changes have prompted a review of all lab-based operations and resulted in new techniques that prioritize worker safety.
Despite the challenges, the staff members are finding ways to keep morale high. From conducting virtual meetings, celebrating achievements remotely, and even training new project team members online, they're ensuring that the spirit of exploration and discovery never loses its spark.
Emphasizing the importance of human connections in tough times, virtual interactions are at an all-time high. Coffee meetups, directorate town halls, and virtual happy hours are helping team members to stay connected and foster camaraderie during these challenging times.
The global pandemic has provided JPL with the opportunity to adapt and innovate under pressure. All of their project management tools, resources, and systems are being tested under these new working conditions, and JPL is rising to meet these new challenges head-on.
Major missions, such as Mars 2020 and Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich have met important milestones despite COVID-19 disturbances. This is thanks to the tireless dedication of the on-site team coupled with the remote workforce's tireless efforts.
Mars 2020 and the Perseverance rover have captured the world's attention and symbolize unfettered determination in the face of adversity. The mission's July launch took place as per schedule, reflecting the strong commitment of NASA's teams during the crisis.
Apart from space missions, JPL engineers have also used the situation as an opportunity to lend their expertise in other areas such as medical device development. They developed VITAL, a ventilator for COVID-19 patients which has received emergency use authorization from the FDA.
The rapidly developed VITAL is a testament to JPL’s innovation under pressure. It was designed to free up the nation's limited supply of traditional ventilators, thereby aiding the medical community's fight against the virus.
JPL’s Director, Michael Watkins, acknowledges that employees, the true JPL resource, are rising to the challenge in extraordinary ways. They are continuously working in the lab and remotely to maintain operations and meet mission timelines.
JPL has had to work hard to keep its employees safe and to minimize disruption to its objectives. However, the reliance on digital tools and the creativity of the JPL workforce have made this transition as smooth as possible.
To ensure the health and safety of its staff while achieving mission goals, JPL continues to change and adapt. It is making every effort to keep staff informed, connected and engaged, thus maintaining their commitment and carrying forward their vision despite the pandemic.
Even as COVID-19 continues to persist, the JPL workforce remains steadfast and versatile, finding ways to excel within these unfamiliar circumstances. With the same spirit of exploration and innovation, JPL will continue to push boundaries and explore the cosmos.