Darby Dyar does the Legwork for VERITAS

Category: Cover Story

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Sometimes, if you really want something, all you have to do is ask.

For PSI Senior Scientist Darby Dyar, this meant asking congresspeople and their staffers in 106 Congressional offices if she could please have her planned space mission – VERITAS – funded to visit one of her favorite worlds, Venus.

Back in June 2022, the VERITAS mission was funded as part of NASA’s Discovery program. Dyar had been working toward this day for more than a decade as the mission’s deputy principal investigator, a role that put her in the number 2 spot as plans got underway for a launch between 2028 and 2030. With 40 years experience, this mission could be the golden crown atop a lifetime of amazing achievements.

There was only one problem. Just a few months later, in October 2022, NASA ran out of money for VERITAS. Cost overruns on other projects required so much money to get them off the ground (literally) that NASA instructed the VERITAS team to stand down and wait to see what might one day be possible when budgets were better. The planetary science community was in shock. All of the advisory groups (AGs) collectively asked the Planetary Advisory Committee to recommend to HQ that VERITAS be reinstated before any new missions were solicited. The team was told to wait until March 2024 for more news.

But Dyar isn’t one to simply wait and see what happens; she is the kind of person who makes her own luck.

“Many people on the science team already work for government entities, so they could not assist with lobbying for the mission. That left me to do some heavy lifting. I’ve been funded by government agencies for more than 40 years, but I never once set foot inside Capitol Hill – something I have always felt a little guilty about! I had always been a taker, not an asker!”

After learning tips and tricks from the Planetary Society Director of Government Relations Jack Kiraly (and with some fashion help from her daughter), Dyar and Kiraly set out to ask congressional officials involved in the appropriations process to please add language in support of the VERITAS mission into NASA’s 2024 appropriations.

Specifically they asked that language be added into the appropriations bill that: “The Administrator shall continue the development of the “Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy” mission on a schedule to achieve a launch-readiness date not later than September 30, 2029, or the earliest practicable date, in accordance with prior congressional direction on the prioritization of decadal survey recommendations.”

In March of 2023, on her own time, Dyar visited House and Senate offices, armed with a Mars meteorite for show-and-tell and some VERITAS swag. She explained to anyone who had time to listen why a little mission like VERITAS can make a giant difference in our understanding of not just Venus, but planetary science in general. Other team members met with their own members of Congress, and the team held their breath!

And, finally, on March 9, 2024, Congress passed the FY2024 appropriations bill that included NASA’s funding lines. In that 196 page document was the direction that NASA provide sufficient funding for the VERITAS Mission. In fact, the exact language just might look familiar, “As part of the fiscal year 2025 budget request, the agreement encourages NASA to request sufficient funding to ensure a launch by the end of the decade. Further, no later than 180 days after the enactment of this act, the agreement directs NASA to provide a budget profile and schedule for the VERITAS mission.

VERITAS is back on.

“It’s been such a roller-coaster ride. There were 12 years of proposing and planning for the mission, with joyous celebration upon selection, and then being threatened with cancellation despite being on-time and on-budget. But now – finally – the mission is coming back to life.” Funding for the project will ramp up in FY2025, and a 2031 launch is now planned.”

There is a lot to do before VERITAS is ready to launch before the end of this decade, but Dyar is ready.

“It’s been eye-opening to learn so much about the engineering side of mission planning, and I can’t wait to work more closely with the team who will build and test our spacecraft. Meanwhile, I’m also working with colleagues at the German Space Agency (DLR) to calibrate and develop machine learning algorithms to interpret the VERITAS orbital spectral data. There’s a major need for fundamental data on high-temperature emission spectroscopy to support this mission. All this plays to my own strengths and background – I think I’ve spent my entire career preparing to work on this mission.”
The VERITAS mission is led by Principal Investigator Suzanne Smrekar out of JPL. The VERITAS mission will gather the data needed to understand how Earth and Venus – worlds of similar size and potential – ended up so wildly different. VERITAS will create the first high-resolution topographic and radar maps of Venus, and also the first near-global maps of Venus’ surface composition. These and other data from VERITAS will allow researchers to understand how Venus’ surface is changing today due to geologic processes like volcanoes. Follow along as the mission develops at https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/veritas