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Americans Want NASA To Focus On Earth, Not Mars, And Especially Not The Moon: Survey

Jun 07, 2018 12:15 AM EDT
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Americans weigh in on the space program, lauding NASA's existence as essential. However, most of them want the agency to stick close to home.

A new survey examined Americans' sentiment on the space program with a number of surprising results.

While the findings by the Pew Research Center show that an overwhelming chunk of the country appreciate the importance of space exploration — 72 percent want the United States to remain a global leader in the industry — opinions are divided on whether Mars or the moon should be a priority.

NASA Priorities Vs Public Priorities

NASA has a vast portfolio of different missions, but when rating nine of these missions, most Americans say that monitoring the climate system (63 percent) and monitoring asteroids and other near-Earth objects for potential collisions (62 percent) should be top priority.

Forty-seven percent say conducting basic scientific research to increase the knowledge of space is top priority, followed by developing technologies that are adaptable for various uses (41 percent), doing research on the effects of space travel on health (38 percent), and searching for materials and resources to be used on Earth (34 percent).

Rated the lowest on the rankings are further exploration beyond Earth. Only 31 percent say that the search for alien life and life-supporting planets is top priority, while 42 percent believe it's low priority, and 27 percent believe it's not important or should not be done.

The missions to Mars and the moon — which are some of the most high-profile missions of NASA — rank the lowest for Americans. Only 18 percent and 13 percent say that sending astronauts to Mars and the moon deserve top priority, and 37 percent and 44 percent, respectively, think that it's not important or should not be done.

Political leanings do play a part when it comes to assessing NASA's priorities, especially in climate issues, which is a top priority for more Democrats (78 percent) than Republicans (44 percent). The two parties tend to agree relatively about many of the priorities, though.

"We were struck by the finding about public priorities for NASAs mission," Cary Funk of Pew Research Center tells Axios. "Sending astronauts into space is one of the most visible of the U.S. space programs over time."

In terms of advancement, approximately 50 percent of Americans believe space tourism will be possible within 50 years, although 58 percent say that they wouldn't actually want to leave Earth.

NASA's Role Moving Forward

Even with a number of private companies making their mark in space, a majority of Americans (65 percent) say that NASA should still play a significant role in exploring space. A third (33 percent) do think that these private companies could advance the industry even without the agency.

When it comes to political parties, 70 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Americans believe that NASA is still vital in the future of the industry, but only 59 percent of the total Republicans and Republican-leaning Americans say the same.

This issue is very relevant due to the emergence of private companies, including Elon Musk's SpaceX, that are venturing out in space. The Trump administration has expressed its intent to stop funding the International Space Station and turn it over to the private industry, according to Washington Post.

According to Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society, this shows that the relationship between NASA and the commercial space industry is poorly communicated to the public.

"The majority of private companies rely on NASA as a customer and, if not, aspire to," Dreier explains in Axios. "NASA right now is playing a critical role in creating a marketplace for commercial space companies."

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