Friday, January 18, 2008

"Messenger" Passes Mercury

Funny - I still have the same child-like enthusiasm for the space program that I had when the Apollo missions delivered 12 astronauts to the moon during the 1970s. I can still name the crews of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and tell you what each of those missions accomplished. Chalk it up to obsessive reading of books on astronomy and the NASA programs of the 60s and 70s.

So this week that enthusiasm was reawakened by the news that NASA's "Messenger" spacecraft had flown by Mercury on Monday, the first of several fly-bys before it slows down and settles into orbit around the planet in 2011. Launched in 2004, its camera and instruments doubtless surpass those of Mariner 10, which photographed Mercury in 1974/75, and was the last NASA craft to reach the planet.

The first photos, which started showing up on the internet in the last two days, are amazing in their clarity, and illustrate what NASA can accomplish given competent leadership and adequate funding. Unfortunately, popular interest in space exploration has waned considerably over the last 30 years. Moreover, Washington's lack of commitment to visionary programs, measured in their failure to fund properly the development of new technologies, has limited NASA's effectiveness and left us with an outdated launch vehicle that, from the standpoint of budgets and bureaucracies, flies along as if negotiating an asteroid field. China is on the verge of significant breakthroughs in its efforts to develop a viable space program and has set long-term goals that, if realized, promise to overshadow the United States' role as a leader in space science.

For now, enjoy this latest good news from NASA, and check out the official "Messenger" website!

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