The head of NASA’s planetary science division said the decision in November to delay the launch of VERITAS by three years was the “least of the bad answers” to address problems with the Psyche mission and budgetary stresses. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — Budget pressures in NASA’s planetary science program could force the agency to choose between continuing a mission to Venus that has already been delayed or requesting proposals for a future mission.

NASA’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, released March 13, included $3.383 billion for planetary science, a 5.7% increase from what Congress appropriated for 2022. The agency, in the rollout of the budget, emphasized the funding included in the proposal for major planetary missions like Mars Sample Return and Europa Clipper.

However, the proposal included only $1.5 million for the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, a Venus orbiter selected by NASA in 2021 as one of two Discovery missions. NASA had projected spending $56.7 million on VERITAS in 2024 in its fiscal year 2023 budget proposal.

NASA announced in November 2022 that it was delaying VERITAS by at least three years in response to the findings on an independent review board into the problems with the Psyche mission, which missed its 2022 launch because of delays in testing software for that asteroid mission. The independent review found institutional issues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads both Psyche and VERITAS, that prompted NASA to delay VERITAS to allow JPL to correct those problems while focusing on other missions.

The $1.5 million offered for VERITAS in the 2024 budget proposal is intended to allow the mission’s science team to continue work. The future “outyears” budget projections for VERITAS, though, keep the mission at $1.5 million a year through fiscal year 2028, in effect indefinitely delaying the mission.

“That’s functionally a soft cancellation,” said Casey Dreier, chief of space policy at The Planetary Society, during a March 16 webinar about the budget proposal organized by the Aerospace Industries Association. “That goes to show that there’s a lot of pressures, particularly within the planetary budget.”

At a NASA town hall meeting during the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC) March 14, Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA Headquarters, defended the decision to postpone VERITAS. “We looked across the board at a bunch of different options, and the VERITAS delay was the one that we picked. There were no good options here,” she said.

She said there were three criteria for restarting VERITAS as soon as 2025. One is to secure the funding needed for the mission, while a second is for JPL to show progress implementing recommendations from the independent review of the Psyche delay, something that JPL’s director, Laurie Leshin, said at a recent advisory committee meeting that the lab was doing.

A third factor, according to Glaze, was for JPL to successfully launch both Europa Clipper and the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Earth science mission, another mission where JPL is playing a leading role. Any delays in either, she said, would tie up personnel and resources needed for VERITAS.

During the town hall, scientists criticized NASA for delaying VERITAS. Among those who spoke was Suzanne Smrekar, principal investigator for VERITAS, who said that the budget would require JPL to disband an experienced engineering team working on its design.

“This mission that was on track is being effectively martyred for all those missions that are going over budget,” she said. “The reason that so many in the community are outraged by this are these facts, that a mission that was on track is contingent on Earth science missions and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with us.”

Glaze indicated that, even if VERITAS clears those hurdles, there is no guarantee the mission will continue. She suggested NASA may be forced to choose whether to continue VERITAS or hold a competition for the next Discovery-class mission, currently scheduled for fiscal year 2025.

“I’ve asked the community to provide feedback on priorities related to the next Discovery calls and support of the selected mission, VERITAS,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of great support from the community to restart VERITAS, even if that means not holding the next Discovery call.”

At a Feb. 27 meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, members discussed a question provided from NASA Headquarters asking if they supported restarting VERITAS versus a new Discovery mission. Most appeared to support VERITAS if NASA had to choose between them.

“It would be very upsetting to miss the Discovery call, but if they’re implying that they would defund VERITAS in order to fund the Discovery call, that’s even less acceptable,” said Bruce Banerdt of JPL, who was principal investigator on another Discovery mission, the InSight Mars lander.

Glaze said she got similar comments from the overall planetary science community supporting continuing VERITAS versus another Discovery mission. “We heard from the community. We’re going to look at where we are and see what we can support,” she said.

She justified the delay because of broader issues, like the effects of the pandemic, supply chain challenges and increased operations costs, that she estimated were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as the JPL-specific problems. “That was the decision that was made, to delay a mission at JPL to not only free up the resources but also to free up the bandwidth to deal with the whole issues across JPL.”

The Discovery budget problem also affects a line of smallsat missions. While Glaze and others at NASA have expressed support for Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx), the fiscal year 2024 budget request said that NASA plans to solicit only one SIMPLEx mission in the coming years, with a draft announcement of opportunity in fiscal year 2024. That mission, with a cost cap of $85 million, would fly with the DAVINCI Venus mission in 2030.

NASA selected three SIMPLEx missions in 2019 at a cost cap of $55 million each, although the three missions have run into cost overruns or other problems. That includes the Janus asteroid mission, which lost its ride because of the Psyche delay. Glaze said that the project is looking at alternative missions the twin smallsats could carry out. “If they find something that looks compelling, we told them that our door is open.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...