NASA’s JPL is struggling with issues related to budget, staffing, and poor communications, forcing the space agency to delay a highly anticipated mission to Venus.
During the annual meeting of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group on Monday, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division Lori Glaze described the mission delay as “the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do probably in my whole life.” However, Glaze said that in trying to address challenges highlighted by an independent review board, “there were zero good options.”
NASA recently shared the results of an independent review board that was put together to decide the fate of the Psyche mission. The mission had missed its initial launch window in August 2022 due to development delays, but is now targeting a launch date in October 2023 to study a metal-rich asteroid. However, the report put together by the review board revealed issues that went far beyond the ones that led to the delay of Psyche.
The independent review board noted that there were not enough staff members working on Psyche to allow for its completion on time, in addition to communication issues and staff members working remotely due to the covid-19 pandemic. The board also noted an unprecedented workload and an imbalance between workload and available resources at JPL.
As a result of these issues, NASA decided to delay the launch of its VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) probe for at least three years. “This is a bitter, bitter blow for the VERITAS team in particular, and the Venus community more broadly,” Planetary Scientist Paul Byrne told Gizmodo in an email. “I’m very disappointed.”
VERITAS was originally scheduled to launch in 2027 on a mission to map the surface of Venus and study its atmosphere. Its delay to 2031 is meant to allow for staff working on VERITAS to contribute to missions that are further along in their development and free up additional resources for the Psyche mission.
Glaze also cited the impact of covid-19 and the ongoing inflation crisis, saying NASA did not receive any additional funding to offset the financial effects of the past two years. “I just wanted to make a note that we’re accommodating a lower budget right now than we anticipated,” Glaze said.
To which she added: “And so every single project that’s getting ready to start building hardware is saying we need to have the money that’s in our budgets out in that year. We need it now so that we can go ahead and begin these early procurements. And so we’re trying to accommodate that as well.”
Members of the Venus science community were frustrated by the decision, especially considering how long they had to wait for a NASA mission to advance Venus science. NASA’s last mission to Venus, Magellan, arrived at the planet in 1989 and concluded science operations in 1994. Since then, NASA hasn’t sent out a specialized Venus mission. But much to the delight of scientists studying Venus, NASA green-lit two Venus missions, VERITAS and DAVINCI, in June of last year. DAVINCI is still on track to launch in 2029, but VERITAS wasn’t as lucky.
“A delay of three years isn’t much in the scheme of NASA’s frequency of Venus missions, but the data VERITAS will return are badly needed—so having to wait for even longer, especially through no fault of the VERITAS team—feels very unfair,” Byrne said.
VERITAS team members who were present at the meeting expressed frustration at having to bear the brunt of the budget and workforce issues when they’ve not gone over budget or have any issues with staffing. “I recognize that you are not responsible for the things that are going to be assessed, that’s out of your control,” Glaze said while addressing a member of the VERITAS team. “I can make a commitment to you and your team to be transparent and to work with you.”
The science team at VERITAS will be reassigned to other missions before they resume work on the mission to Venus later on. “We are going to provide some level of support throughout the stand down for the science team to continue meeting, continue talking, continue thinking towards how we go forward in the 2024 timeframe,” Glaze said.
There will also be an assessment of the progress made at JPL towards resolving the issues noted in the report, as well as progress made for two upcoming missions, NASA’s Europa Clipper and NISAR, which are scheduled for launch in 2024. “If they are not sufficiently staffed and they miss their launch window, the funding implications of that would be, I would go so far as to say, almost catastrophic,” Glaze said.
The Psyche mission is designed to reveal the origins of a 140-mile-wide (226-kilometer) asteroid, but its delay has already revealed more than NASA had anticipated. “I had heard that there were serious staffing issues at JPL, but that’s true of many places because of the covid-19 pandemic and other issues,” Byrne said. “But I had no idea just how bad things were.”