The Trump administration has vowed to make America great again in spaceflight, and the centerpiece of its space policy to date has been a reprioritisation of human spaceflight as a central part of NASA’s operations. As part of this initiative, the White House has sought to cut funding for satellites to observe environmental changes on Earth and eliminate NASA’s education office.
However, a new survey of 2,541 Americans by Pew Research Center, which aims to reflect the views of American adults, finds that these views do not align with public priorities.
The survey asked respondents about their top priorities for NASA, with the most support coming for “monitor key areas of Earth’s climate system” (63 percent) and “monitor asteroids/objects that could hit Earth” (62 percent). Sending astronauts to Mars (18 percent) and the Moon (13 percent) lagged far behind as a top priority for respondents.
“We found that quite surprising,” said Cary Funk, who led the study. This is partly because a focus on manned missions has been such a highly visible facet of NASA’s exploration program in the past, and because the agency has gone to great lengths to send humans to Mars and, more recently, a human return to Mars. the moon. “The tricky part is that we don’t have this kind of data in the past,” she said. “We haven’t asked the public much about other missions the agency is working on.”
What’s striking about these results is that public priorities, at least according to the Pew study, are pretty much the opposite of NASA’s spending priorities set by the White House and Congress. NASA spends most of its budget, about $4 billion a year, developing a large Space Launch System rocket, its ground systems and the Orion spacecraft to lay the groundwork for a program to take humans to the Moon and Mars. to send. Second, NASA’s planetary science program has recently prioritized the search for life on Mars and ocean worlds deeper in the solar system, such as Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
Asteroids and Climate
“The vast majority of the public thinks we should have a space program that saves the Earth,” said Phil Larson, a former Obama White House official who is now an assistant dean at the University of Colorado College of Engineering. “That means funding climate research and making sure we can track all threatening objects from space and have a plan of what to do with them — essentially be smarter than the dinosaurs.”
In contrast, the White House and Republicans in Congress, perhaps most notably Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have sought to cut funding for Earth science work at NASA. In addition, the agency spends almost no money on finding looming asteroids. The agency’s Planetary Defense Coordinating Office has an annual budget of about $50 million to find, catalog and study asteroids that could potentially threaten Earth.
The results of the study did not surprise former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the executive director of the B612 Foundation, a private organization dedicated to the discovery and deflection of asteroids. “I think this is a threat that more and more people are recognizing,” Lu tells Ars. “The Chelyabinsk meteor woke up a lot of people.” Lu refers to a 20-meter-long asteroid that brilliantly broke apart in the atmosphere over Russia in 2013.
If the White House and Congress really took planetary defense seriously, Lu said, it would fully fund the development of a space telescope (such as NEOCam) to find potentially dangerous asteroids and support research efforts to identify other threats that may be sneaking past telescopes. on Earth and in space. The space agency must also be allowed to continue with missions such as the Double Asteroid Redirect Test mission and other efforts to fend off incoming threats. A comprehensive planetary defense program, Lu said, would likely cost less than $500 million a year.
The research also suggests that not much of the American public pays attention to space, with only 7 percent of Americans saying they’ve heard or read “a lot” about NASA and private space companies like SpaceX in the past year.
For the first time, Pew also asked several questions about private companies, “such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic,” which are developing capabilities for space exploration. A strong majority of respondents had fair or high confidence that these companies would “build safe and reliable rockets and spacecraft” (80 percent) and “control the costs of developing rockets and spacecraft” (65 percent).
When asked to look ahead at how human spaceflight will develop over the next half century, respondents were skeptical about space tourism and colonies on other worlds. Only 50 percent of those polled agreed that people would “routinely travel to space as tourists,” and only 32 percent agreed that by 2068, people would “build colonies on other planets where they can live for long periods of time.” .
The response from space tourism is a bit surprising, as it is likely that Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic will fly tourists into suborbital space within the next 12 to 18 months, with orbital travel likely to occur within the next five to 10 years. Perhaps, however, this reaction is to be expected from a general public that recognizes that it pays little attention to space and space news.