- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Given the past few years of economic hardship, it’s easy to think the era of boundless opportunity that has characterized the American story is coming to an end. In times such as these, it’s comforting to remember that as long as we retain our inquisitive nature, our discoveries could yield possibilities for better days ahead.

The space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to return to Earth Wednesday after its final mission. Installation of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (ASM), a state-of-the-art particle physics detector, on the International Space Station during its 16-day mission shows how much will be lost without our own manned space fleet. The ASM is designed to detect information emanating from far beyond our own galaxy to discern clues regarding the structure and origin of the universe. NASA scientists are looking specifically for evidence of the existence of antimatter and dark matter. Stars, or visible matter, account for just 5 percent of the measurements of the mass of the universe. Scientists suppose much of the rest must be in the form of “dark” matter.

Last month, astronomers produced evidence confirming that a force other than gravity was responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. Two studies by Australian astronomers accepted for publication by the Royal Astronomical Society concluded “dark energy” is at work in the way clusters of galaxies formed following the Big Bang 16 billion years ago and in the subsequent distribution of galaxies in space.

It’s hard to know if any of this new knowledge about the fundamental composition of the universe will have any practical application for improving life on Earth, but there is seldom certainty on the frontiers of discovery. Too few are predisposed to venture beyond their comfort zones, but those who do are often the ones who change the world. Recent history has shown that an inordinate proportion of those who are inclined to do so have been Americans.

That’s why it is sad to see the U.S. space-shuttle program grounded next month after a 30-year run, just as Beijing appears ready to kick off its own space-exploration program with the ultimate goal of sending a manned mission to Mars. Let us hope that the next generation of Americans can rekindle the inquisitive spirit that has characterized our national identity and restore U.S. preeminence in space. The same irrepressible zest for knowing what’s out there is bound to help us hurdle the obstacles that now confront us down here.

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