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.