The value of public interest in spaceflight
by Jeff Foust
|For all of NASA’s focus on Artemis and returning humans to the Moon, the option of “sending human astronauts to explore the Moon” ranked near the bottom, with only 12% saying it should be a top priority.
You could see those arguments play out last week with the release of a poll by the Pew Research Center on the public’s views on various space issues. At one level, the news was good for the space community: 69% of respondents said they believed it was essential that the United States remain a world leader in space exploration, versus 30% who thought it not essential. Those numbers are little changed from the same poll five years ago, where 72% thought it essential and 27% not essential. (The poll has a margin of error of plus/minus 1.5%.)
Most headlines, though, focused on the priorities the public placed on NASA. The poll offered nine priorities in science, technology, and exploration and asked which should be the top priorities, which were important but a lower priority, and which are either not too important or should not be done at all.
For all of NASA’s focus on Artemis and returning humans to the Moon, the option of “sending human astronauts to explore the Moon” ranked near the bottom, with only 12% saying it should be a top priority. Only sending humans to Mars ranking worse, at 11%. (Interestingly, according to the questionnaire, respondents were asked either about sending astronauts to the Moon or to Mars, but not both.)
By contrast, 60% of respondents said that monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially hit the Earth was a top priority, while 50% said monitoring “key parts” of the Earth’s climate. Basic scientific research and spinning off space technologies for other applications followed at 40% and 35% respectively.
If that assessment sounds familiar, it should. The rankings are effectively unchanged from that 2018 poll, where 63% picked climate science as a top priority and 62% selected planetary defense. Humans to Mars (18%) and the Moon (13%) were at the bottom then.
It comes, though, six months after the success of the Artemis 1 mission, a major step towards returning humans to the Moon. The poll would suggest that Artemis 1 had no impact on public support for human space exploration despite the tremendous media attention it garnered, as well as followup activities like this selection in April of the crew of Artemis 2.
|“We were able to protect the most important national priority within NASA’s budget, at least in my view, which is to return humans to the Moon and maintain our strategic advantage in space,” Moran said at a Senate markup.
Then again, it appears that nothing NASA has done in the last year or so has changed public support for its activities for the better. The release of the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope a year ago was a public relations bonanza for the agency, yet those who considered scientific research a top priority for NASA fell from 47% in 2018 to 40% in 2023. A related option, searching for life and planets that could support life, tumbled from 31% in 2018 to 16% this year.
Likewise, the success of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in hitting an asteroid and changing its orbit had no impact, if you will, on support for planetary defense, which was unchanged in the new poll from 2018.
It’s unclear what cased that drop in those that consider any activities a top priority. In many cases, that support shifted to the second category of important but lower priority. For example, while those who considered basic scientific research a top priority fell from 47% to 40%, those who considered it an important but lower priority grew from 40% to 45%. Similarly while climate science as a top priority fell from 63% to 50%, the important but lower priority category grew from 25% to 34%.
Those priorities, as expressed in a poll, clash with how Congress is allocating money for NASA. The Senate’s draft spending bill keeps Earth science funding flat in fiscal year 2024, rather than an increase of more than 12% over 2023 that the administration sought. However, the bill increases funding for exploration programs, albeit a smaller increase than what NASA sought. A House bill would go even further, fully funding the administration’s $7.97 billion request for exploration, while likely doing no better than the Senate for Earth science.
“We were able to protect the most important national priority within NASA’s budget, at least in my view, which is to return humans to the Moon and maintain our strategic advantage in space,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), ranking member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said of his committee’s bill during a July 13 markup.
The House bill “takes other important steps to counter China, including fully funding the administration’s request for deep space exploration,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, during a markup of its bill July 14.
Politicians whose priorities run counter to those of the voting public run the risk of losing elections—if the public cares about those priorities. For NASA, though, it’s not clear that the public thinks much about the agency. According to the poll, 56% of respondents said that they had heard or read only “a little” about NASA in the last year, compared to only 11% of those who responded “a lot.” Remarkably, a third of those polled said they had heard or read nothing about NASA in the last 12 months, a year that included Artemis 1, DART, and JWST’s first images.
Not surprisingly, those who read or heard a lot about NASA were more likely to consider various options a top priority for the agency (if you’re getting more information about NASA, it’s probably because you have an interest in the agency; if you have an interest in it, it’s more likely to be a positive one.) The biggest differences were in basic science and technology spinoffs, while there was little additional interest in astrobiology. Even here, though, only 24% of those who said they follow NASA a lot considered human lunar exploration a top priority.
The survey had some other interesting insights—and warning signs. There is a growing public awareness of commercial space, with only 24% saying they had heard nothing at all about private space companies, down from 37% five years ago. Nearly half of respondents said that such companies were doing a good job building “safe and reliable” launch vehicles and spacecraft, as well as making “important contributions” about space exploration. In both cases, the number saying they were not sure was far larger than those who thought companies are doing a bad job.
That was not the case, though, regarding preventing the creation of space debris. Only 21% of respondents said companies were doing a good job, versus 26% who thought they were doing a bad job; more than half said they were not sure. In a separate question, 69% said they believed that, in the next 50 years, space debris will either definitely or probably become a major problem.
|The lesson may be that broad public support isn’t the missing ingredient to a bigger, bolder civil space program.
There is also the issue of partisan divides. NASA administrator Bill Nelson has long trumpeted NASA support as being not just bipartisan but nonpartisan: transcending red-versus-blue divides entirely. For most of the priorities included in the Pew poll, that is the case: the differences between Republicans and Democrats is measured in single digits. For sending astronauts to the Moon, for example, 13% of Republicans versus 12% of Democrats thought it should be a top priority.
A stunning, if not unexpected, exception is in climate change. While 69% of Democrats thought it should be a top priority, only 30% of Republicans agreed, a 39-point difference.
The poll was released the same day as a briefing by NASA to review their work on climate change, from Earth science missions to collect data on the changing climate to aeronautics research on sustainable aviation. The briefing was times not to the poll but the recent extreme weather around the world that scientists have liked to climate change.
Nelson, at the briefing, did not address the partisan divide on the topic but said he would work to preserve funding for climate work as the 2024 appropriations process continues. “We’re going to have the least possible effect on any climate science,” he said. “This is a huge priority for us. It’s a huge priority for me personally, having lived through this as the senator from Florida.”
The lesson from all this is not that NASA and its supporters need to spend even more effort on public outreach, or that they should give it up all together. Instead, it may be that broad public support isn’t the missing ingredient to a bigger, bolder civil space program.
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