- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

Today, if all goes as planned, a messenger of discovery will lift off for the planet named after the gods. NASA’s Messenger craft will answer many questions about the planet. There are many mysteries about Mercury, the planet nearest to the sun. It is slightly larger than the Earth’s moon, and resembles it. But it is so close to the sun that examination by Earth-based telescopes is extremely difficult. It has only been visited by one messenger from Earth: Mariner 10, which flew by it three times during the mid-1970s.

Mercury has the greatest temperature variation in the solar system — its daytime highs top out at well over 800 degrees Fahrenheit, and its nighttime lows sink to minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mercury’s years are extremely short, but its days are extremely long. One hundred and seventy-six days are required for the planet to complete a full rotation (one day), but it completes one orbit around the sun in 88 days.

Once it reaches final orbit in 2011, Messenger will spend 12 months mapping the planet’s surface and analyzing its composition. Scientists hope that its findings will help them better understand how the solar system formed, and these findings may even give them insights into the development of planets outside the solar system.

While Messenger is traveling to Mercury, Cassini will continue to explore Saturn. After discovering evidence of salty seas on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity are continuing to explore across the surface of the red planet. Voyager I continues to push back the bounds of the solar system.

The craft are necessarily surrogates — mechanical stepchildren. But they embody the ingenuity and hopes of mankind. Men could and should eventually go where their machines have gone. It is possible. Earlier this year, President Bush laid out a vision for man’s exploration into space, a step-by-step journey of discovery into the solar system. NASA is attempting to fulfill that vision.

Yet Congress does not appear to have caught that vision. Last month, Mr. Bush threatened to veto the appropriations bill that funds NASA after the House Appropriations Committee left it $1.1 billion short of his request. Congress should support the president’s space vision.

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