Pew Poll Show Strong Support for U.S. Space Leadership, Little for Returning Astronauts to Moon

The newly-expanded Expedition 54 crew gathers in the Zvezda service module for ceremonila congratulations from family and mission officials. (Credit: NASA TV)

A new poll by the Pew Research Center showed strong support for maintaining U.S. leadership in space, but little interest in returning astronauts to the moon.

“Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (72%) say it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be a world leader in space exploration, and eight-in-ten (80%) say the space station has been a good investment for the country,” the survey found.

However, only 13 percent felt that sending astronauts back to the moon should be a top NASA priority. Mars came in slightly higher at 18 percent.

“When asked to rate the importance of nine of these missions, majorities of Americans say a top priority for NASA should be monitoring key parts of the Earth’s climate system (63%) or monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially collide with the Earth (62%),” the poll found.

Americans were skeptical about space tourism and reluctant to personally fly into space.

“The public is divided over the prospects for space tourism in the next 50 years,” the poll found. “Half (50%) believe this will happen while half are skeptical this will be routine for ordinary people. About a third of Americans (32%) believe that colonies on other planets – habitable for long periods of time – will be built by the year 2068, while two-thirds (67%) doubt this will happen.

“As the public considers the possibilities ahead for ordinary citizens to orbit the Earth in a spacecraft, more Americans say they would not want to orbit the Earth than say they would (58% to 42%),” the report added. “Interest in orbiting the Earth is greater among younger generations, men and those who are more attentive to space news. Some 63% of Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) say they are definitely or probably interested in space tourism, compared with 39% of Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) and 27% of those in the Baby Boomer or older generations.”

Selected excerpts from the poll follow.

Majority of Americans Believe It is Essential That the U.S. Remain a Global Leader in Space
Pew Research Center
June 2018

FULL REPORT

Selected Excerpts

Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (72%) say it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be a world leader in space exploration, and eight-in-ten (80%) say the space station has been a good investment for the country, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted March 27-April 9, 2018.

Credit: Pew Research Center

And, as the private sector increasingly ventures into space – through companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic – 65% of Americans believe NASA should still play a vital role in the exploration of space, while a third (33%) say private companies will ensure enough progress in this area even without NASA’s involvement.

Each generational group, for example, expresses nearly equal levels of strong support for continued U.S. space leadership – from Baby Boomer and older generations (71%) who lived through the “Right Stuff” era that pioneered space exploration to Millennials (70%) who grew up during the space shuttle program.

Most (65%) still see an essential role for NASA, while a third (33%) believe “private companies will ensure that enough progress is made in space exploration, even without NASA’s involvement.” Democrats and independents who lean Democratic are more likely than Republicans and independents who lean Republican to believe that NASA should continue to play a role in space exploration (70% vs. 59%). Conservative Republicans are closely divided on this issue (53% to 47%), though two-thirds (67%) of moderate or liberal Republicans believe a continued role for NASA in U.S. space exploration is essential.

NASA’s Priorities

Credit: Pew Research Center

When asked to rate the importance of nine of these missions, majorities of Americans say a top priority for NASA should be monitoring key parts of the Earth’s climate system (63%) or monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially collide with the Earth (62%).

Slightly fewer than half of Americans (47%) believe that conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge and understanding of space should be a top priority, with 40% saying such research is an important but lower priority. Some 41% say developing technologies that could be adapted for uses other than space exploration should be a top priority, and 44% characterize it as an important but lower priority for NASA. And 38% believe NASA should make it a top priority to conduct scientific research on how space travel affects human health, while 41% see it as an important but lower priority.

Around one-third of U.S. adults say that searching for raw materials and natural resources that could be used on Earth (34%) or searching for life and planets that could support life (31%) should be top priorities; 22% and 27% of Americans say, respectively, that these missions are not too important or shouldn’t be pursued.

However, compared with other NASA programs, fewer Americans say such space exploration should be a top priority. Just 18% and 13%, respectively, say that sending astronauts to Mars or back to the moon should be a top priority; 37% and 44%, respectively, express the view that these missions are not too important or that NASA shouldn’t undertake these missions.

Credit: Pew Research Center

With regards to future expeditions into space, a majority of Americans say they would consider it essential that humans, not solely robots, make the trip. Overall, 58% of U.S. adults believe it is essential to include the use of human astronauts in the U.S. space program, while 41% say astronauts are not essential.

Republicans and Democrats tend to agree about the relative priorities of NASA’s efforts. For example, about six-in-ten of each party say that monitoring asteroids should be a top priority for NASA (61% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats, including those who lean to each party). But Republicans tend to put monitoring the Earth’s climate system as a lower priority for the agency, consistent with long-standing political divides over climate issues. Fewer Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (44%) than Democrats and Democratic leaners (78%) believe that monitoring the Earth’s climate system should be a top priority for NASA. Some 38% of Republicans say that monitoring the Earth’s climate system should be an important but lower priority, and 17% say this is not too important or should not be done.

Profitability of Private Companies

Credit: Pew Research Center

Private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic continue to develop space exploration capabilities that were once the sole purview of government agencies such as NASA. Some 44% of Americans have a great deal of confidence these companies will make a profit in their space-related ventures, with 36% saying they are fairly confident that space companies will be profitable.

About one-in-four Americans say they have a great deal of confidence that private companies will build safe and reliable rockets and spacecraft (26%), and around half of Americans (51%) have at least a fair amount of confidence that space companies will be able to do so.

Americans are by and large confident about the ability of private companies to control the costs of developing rockets and spacecraft – 24% have a great deal of confidence and 41% have a fair amount of confidence, compared with 34% who have “not too much” confidence or no confidence at all. Moreover, 23% have a great deal of confidence and 47% have a fair amount of confidence that companies will conduct basic research to increase knowledge of space, compared with 29% who don’t have much confidence or have no confidence at all.

Americans, however, tend to be skeptical about whether private companies will minimize human-made space debris, which increasingly poses a hazard to orbiting satellites and space stations. Only 13% of U.S. adults have a great deal of confidence that companies will minimize that problem, with 35% saying they have a fair amount of confidence. By comparison, about half of Americans (51%) have not too much or no confidence that private companies will minimize human-made space debris.

Americans Closely Focused on Space

A small share of the public, just 7%, is particularly attentive to space news, saying they have heard “a lot” about NASA in the past year and “a lot” about private space companies. About a fifth of Americans (22%) have heard “nothing at all” about either of these while most Americans (71%) fall in between these two extremes, having heard at least a little either about NASA or about private companies developing space exploration capabilities.

Credit: Pew Research Center

Those most attentive to space news stand out from other Americans for their strong support for the U.S. being a world leader in space exploration and their belief that the International Space Station has been a good investment for the country. For instance, 88% of those who have heard a lot of space news believe it is essential for the U.S. to be a global leader in space exploration, compared with 60% of those who have heard nothing about NASA and private space companies. And 94% of the most space-attentive Americans consider the space station to have been a good investment for the country, compared with 67% of those who have heard nothing about space news.

Americans who are highly attentive to space news put more priority than other Americans on research missions such as basic scientific research and learning about the health effects of space travel. For example, three-quarters (75%) of those highly attentive to space news believe basic scientific research should be a top priority for NASA versus 31% of those with low attention to such news. Indeed, the share of this space-attentive group that considers basic research a top priority is similar to the shares who say the same about monitoring objects in space that could collide with Earth (69%) and monitoring the climate system (68%).

But, while those who pay a lot of attention to space news tend to put more priority than other Americans on NASA’s research missions, they are more closely divided than other Americans over the importance of NASA’s role in space exploration going forward. Among the most attentive, 55% say it is essential that NASA continue to be involved in U.S. space exploration, while 45% say private companies will ensure enough progress even without NASA’s involvement. Among other Americans, the balance of opinion leans more clearly toward NASA remaining involved. For example, 66% of those who pay a medium level of attention to space news say it is essential for NASA to remain involved, as do 68% of those with low attention to space news.

Views on Space Tourism

Credit: Pew Research Center

Americans expect a range of scientific and technological developments ahead. But the public is divided over the prospects for space tourism in the next 50 years. Half (50%) believe this will happen while half are skeptical this will be routine for ordinary people. About a third of Americans (32%) believe that colonies on other planets – habitable for long periods of time – will be built by the year 2068, while two-thirds (67%) doubt this will happen.

As the public considers the possibilities ahead for ordinary citizens to orbit the Earth in a spacecraft, more Americans say they would not want to orbit the Earth than say they would (58% to 42%).

Interest in orbiting the Earth is greater among younger generations, men and those who are more attentive to space news. Some 63% of Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) say they are definitely or probably interested in space tourism, compared with 39% of Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) and 27% of those in the Baby Boomer or older generations. Across all generations, men are more likely than women (51% vs. 33%) to say they are interested in traveling into space as tourists.

Credit: Pew Research Center

Among the 42% of Americans who would be interested in traveling into space, 45% of them say the main reason for their interest would be to “experience something unique.” Some 29% of this group say they would go so that they can see the view of Earth from space, while 20% want to “learn more about the world.”

The 58% of U.S. adults who say they wouldn’t want to orbit the Earth aboard a spacecraft believe that such a trip would be either “too expensive” (28% of those asked) or “too scary” (28%), or that their age or health wouldn’t allow it (28%). Some 16% of those not interested in space travel offered reasons other than the three options in the survey.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I take this poll to indicate that Americans are ready to be led into various directions of space both manned and unmanned. I also read into it, that it’s unlikely they can be easily led away from space. Asking the uninformed American public to make a educated call on whether to go to Mars or the Moon is like asking them to make an intelligent call on the proper place of low yield nuclear weapons in the escalation sequence of a war. I think the poll shows that once people start settling and living on either the Moon or Mars, the public will back it. More than back it, they’ll love it.

  • Michael Halpern

    And it has to be sustainable and more than flags and footprints, if its a repeat of Apollo, it isn’t that significant, but it it goes further, semipermament outpost on the Moon and outright colony on Mars, (a proper colony on the Moon has resource scarcity pronlems)

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’m not quite sure the public is ready to discern the difference between those two if presented with the kind of heavy handed and well aimed PR any Moon or Mars project will come with. The American population has been deliberately led away from even attempting to conduct dispassionate analysis of the news. Today news is taken as opinion, and opinion is taken as new.

  • Michael Halpern

    Depends on where you live, i might not have done well in highschool english but such analysis is something I picked up from it.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I sure hope you’re right. But you’re educated on the history and what went wrong the first time around. If you’re right that the run of the mill American has synthesized thoughts on the state of manned American space flight now vs then and what’s happened inbetween, I’ll be happy to have underestimated my fellow Americans and take all the dings that implies. But that said some of the malfunctions between the Mars crowd and the Moon crowed who are well versed can give a lot of pause to the thought that American society is about to become a multi-world nation.

  • Michael Halpern

    Oh I doubt they have, not much, most of whats happening now in spaceflight, wont become mainstream knowledge until most likely SX-Demo 2, late this year or early next year, not high stakes enough to be worth non-nerds attention unless lives are on the line unfortunately. However there is one thing that is certain on how people will feel about certain things “the taxpayer paid how much for this? and it cant even land on the moon” verses “The taxpayer didn’t pay much to develop it and it only costs that little*?”

    *subjective when compared to say shuttle official launch cost, FH expendable let alone BFR is dirt cheap.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Interesting thoughts, I don’t discount them. You imply people have a memory, in this case a deep memory, with a sense of scale and context. I hope you’re right. Call me a doubter that people will remember let alone be able to understand the scale difference between the investment vs the outcome of government space vs Space X space. I think what’s going to capture hearts and minds will be the opera. Space Opera will capture hearts and minds and then might prompt people in large numbers, but not masses, to start looking back for context. But we’re going to see the experiment played out within 2 years or so. So we’ll see and get to compare our predictions. I’ll be happy to be wrong.

  • Michael Halpern

    Enough do, and those that do will put the price comparisons on the news

  • ThomasLMatula

    No surprise, the public is looking for goals in space they will see benefits from. BTW notice how many folks support planetary defense as a goal? Not surprising as I saw similar numbers in surveys I did in 2002 and 2005. Yet NASA views it as low priority in terms of funding.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    As you know NASA does not get to choose it’s mandate. It either comes from the office of the president or the US Congress. Asteroids are part of a ongoing tug of war between the OOP and the US Congress. If asteroid defense were a favorite of the the OOP then it would have died in one of the changes of administration years ago. That we’ve survived since the early 1980’s has more to do with the USAF AFRL and the US Congress. The Congress has carried the torch since the mid 90’s. Asteroid defense is a very long timeline project. For now it should stay with the US Congress. In the long term, when the time comes to divert an inbound, it can likely be contracted out to a private firm if it’s far enough out in the future. If we find an incoming when we’re at a less capable stage of spaceflight, then yes, you’d need the military.

  • windbourne

    “NASA continue to be involved in U.S. space exploration” does not, hopefully, mean that NASA should continue to build rockets. The SLS is a perfect example of why CONgress/NASA should no longer be building production rockets. It makes perfect sense for NASA to research/develop prototypes, but the tech should then be turned over to American companies that manufacture it in America. In addition, it should NOT be monopolies, but at least 2 companies that get the tech and allow for competition.

  • windbourne

    No, NASA does not view it that way.
    CONgress, specifically, the GOP, does. They refuse to fund it.
    For example, ARM was about moving asteroids, which would help us with dealing with asteroids. BUT, it was the GOP that unfunded it.

  • windbourne

    un no. CONgress has gut money for asteroid defense over and over. ARM is a good example of that.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    It’s kept within bounds, but it’s kept alive. If any administration takes up the cause of asteroid mitigation as a national goal and pushes that policy into election level politics, that’s it, the next administration will kill it.

  • Michael Halpern

    The big problem is that the proposed architectures out of NASA for planetary defense are all also justifications for SLS, and therefore taking up politically valuable payload capacity for less politically valuable science it would be easy if they were expecting to use a different launch vehicle

  • Michael Halpern

    On the last point it if a company is heavily involved in the research, there is an argument to let them have it a couple years or so before others as a way to reward them for the help and incentivize them but it should be a fixed time limit decided at the start of the project

  • Panice

    It’s important to distinguish between the 7% who are attentive to space and the 93% who aren’t. Space as an issue is rarely important enough to move the needle on elections (Sputnik is the sole exception), so what the 93% think rarely matters. Space in Congress and occasionally the White House is driven by constituent letters, phone calls, and office visits (politics between elections) and almost all of that is provided by the 7%. As a result, only the 7% really matter. If organized, the 7% can also influence the occasional congressional race, while the 93% almost always votes on other issues.

  • ThomasLMatula

    ARM was a joke, a made up mission because NASA determined it was too difficult to send the astronauts to a NEO, so they decided to bring a boulder to them. It had not to do with planetary defense.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Again, ARM had nothing to do with planetary defense. That was just hype that ARM advocates used to try to keep President Obama’s “skip the Moon” space vision funded. Picking a boulder off a asteroid has almost nothing to do with the technologies needed to deflect one. Congress has always supported true planetary defense and saw through the hype of the ARM advocates.

    http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/apjinternational/apj-s/2009/1tri09/franceeng.htm

    “The press, and as a result Congress, were again energized to the NEO threat
    during 1994 when the spectacular Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet fragments hit Jupiter
    and were displayed in real-time on the internet and television. Hearings were
    held on Capitol Hill and determined congressmen again took bold action by
    commissioning yet another committee to recommend courses of action. Dr. Gene
    Shoemaker led the Near-Earth Object Study Working Group, whose product is today
    rightfully called the “Shoemaker Report.”

    And then there was the 2005 NEO Act named in honor of Rep. George E. Brown who championed the cause for so long.

    https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/109/hr1022

    and now

    https://psmag.com/news/you-cant-run-from-a-giant-space-rock

    “During a science budget hearing
    last month, we were surprised to hear certain congressmen bring up an
    issue we had never thought to worry about before. “I have been very
    concerned that we are not putting enough emphasis on trying to secure
    the world in case we would spot an asteroid heading toward the Earth,”
    Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) said. He wasn’t alone in
    his anxiety: “I share the interest in planetary defense with Congressman
    Rohrabacher,” Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) later said.”

    The laugh factor, as in this article, is from the media and the space experts the reporters talk to.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The key thing is to remember that polls like this are only important in terms of government funded space activities. They have zero impact on commercial ones like Jeff Bezos, Robert Bigelow and Jeff Bezos are focused on.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Do you think SLS will be a factor in 10 year? 20 years? 30 years. For asteroid defense the time spans you might want to consider thinking in are about 100 years with 30 year sub eras for systems to operate and make their mark. If you want to look at it in terms of the function of an air to air missile we’re in the radar search phase yet. We don’t need to define the rocket motor or the warhead. Those subsystems come in as we learn more about the nature of the target. We won’t fully understand what tools to use for another 50 odd years.

  • Michael Halpern

    No but money to go into it is a problem now and with how politically motivated SLS is, it has to have political gains

  • Paul_Scutts

    There is a lot of information to absorb here. I would have liked to have been informed about sample size, how extracted, layout of instrument, how administered, etc.. I’m not surprised re. likelihood of riding to orbit, as I suspect that if a survey was taken in the early 1900’s would have given a similar result re. likelihood of riding in a heavier-than-air flying machine.

  • windbourne

    within 4 years, SLS will be dead. At that time, we should have FH, New Glenn, and hopefully, BFR. While FH and New Glenn will not have the cargo capacity, they will be a fraction of the costs. And We all know that BFR exceeds SLS on all issues.

  • Michael Halpern

    Agreed just my speculation on why asteroid deflection type missions are constantly being sidelined, another consideration is that from a science perspective, its basically asking “can we impart velocity on a rock orbiting the Sun?” Now a gravity tractor as part of a sample return could be interesting