Once more, NASA leaves our sister planet out of the mix of new missions. Ouch.
Hello, my name is David, and I have a Venus problem. For decades I’ve had an unhealthy compulsion. I’ve been doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And there’s a whole community of us who share this questionable obsession.
The title of this column is the perennial answer to where NASA will send its next interplanetary spacecraft. The U.S. hasn’t launched to Venus since 1989. That mission, Magellan, revealed our sister planet to be an incredibly beautiful and geologically interesting place, and it raised many new questions: What’s in that thick atmosphere? Was there an ocean, and for how long? Could life have gotten started? In the wake of Magellan, we thought these and other burning questions would logically lead to new NASA spacecraft that would address them.
Since then we Venus researchers have proposed orbiters, entry probes, balloons, and landers. Every one has been shot down. Part of the problem is that the risk of Venus missions is perceived as too high. The observing conditions are so challenging that, judged against a mission to a more well-explored planet, we will always get less data with more risk, for the same money.
The Europeans and Japanese have helped fill the gap with small missions that have kept some vital data flowing. But without data from ambitious new NASA missions there’s less funding for new studies, fewer resources to train students, and fewer people coming into the field. Yet every time NASA has called for proposals, we’ve gone back for more. It’s the fix we can’t resist.
Recently we made the finals. In NASA’s Discovery Program competition, for missions costing up to $450 million, the agency selected two Venus contenders for the final round, out of five total. We’d been through many competitions in which no Venus missions had been selected. We’d been assured by many NASA officials that this doesn’t reflect policy or official bias, and encouraged to keep trying. Now we had 40% of the finalists. It felt like it could be our time at last.
So a lot of us took it very hard when we learned in January that NASA had chosen two missions, neither going to Venus. Both are worthwhile and exciting, flying to new kinds of asteroids never before visited. But how are we supposed to respond, emotionally and strategically, to our repeated defeat? We are like Cubs fans if the Cubs had made it to the World Series but hadn’t won. Do we buy tickets for another season? At what point are we no longer admirably committed, but merely pitiful?
Alas, we will get up, dust ourselves off, and try again. NASA is soliciting proposals for the next iteration of the New Frontiers Program, which has a higher budget than a Discovery mission. Several teams are organizing to propose new Venus sorties.
I could make up excuses for this behavior pattern. I could tell you why sooner or later the U.S. must return to Venus, because without doing so there will be limits to our ability to understand Earth, or climate, or what exoplanets are really like. I could tell you that we keep trying because sooner or later the gaps in our knowledge — compared to other places in the solar system — will become so glaring that it would be as if we’d explored the entire Earth carefully but ignored one whole continent.
But really we just can’t help ourselves. Someday, someday . . .
This article first appeared in print in the May 2017 issue of Sky & Telescope.