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Casey DreierJune 6, 2018

NASA is beloved—the Moon not so much

New poll highlights broad support for space, science, and planetary defense

There is a broad consensus in the United States that the country must continue its leadership in space exploration. Significant majorities of men and women, Republicans and Democrats, young and old all support space exploration, with an average of seven out of ten Americans expressing support for the idea that space exploration is essential.

This is the result of a new Pew Research Center poll on American attitudes toward space exploration, released today.

Majority of Americans say it is essential for U.S. to be a leader in space exploration...

Pew Research Center.

Majority of Americans say it is essential for U.S. to be a leader in space exploration...
Note: Respondents who did not give an answer are not shown. Source: Survey conducted March 27-April 9, 2018. “Majority of Americans Believe It Is Essential That the U.S. Remain a Global Leader in Space”

Additionally, a vast majority of Americans (80%) believe that the International Space Station has been a good investment for the country.

Neither of these results is surprising. Both are consistent with previous polling done by Pew in 2015. NASA generally tends to poll well in isolation (in other words, when respondents are not asked to prioritize NASA over other government activities).

More interesting this time around was how respondents prioritized NASA's activities, which are pretty much the reverse of NASA's actual funding priorities:

More Americans view monitoring climate or asteroids as top NASA priorities than do so for sending astronauts to the moon or Mars

Pew Research Center

More Americans view monitoring climate or asteroids as top NASA priorities than do so for sending astronauts to the moon or Mars
% of U.S. adults who say each of the following should be a top priority for NASA. Note: Respondents who did not give an answer are not shown. Source: Survey conducted March 27-April 9, 2018. “Majority of Americans Believe It Is Essential That the U.S. Remain a Global Leader in Space”

For context: NASA's Earth Science Division receives $1.9 billion per year out of NASA's $20.5 billion budget in 2018, roughly 9% of the total. The Planetary Defense program received $100 million, or approximately 0.5% of NASA's total budget. Basic scientific research related to space accounts for roughly a third of agency spending (this includes Earth Science).

As you might have guessed by now, public opinion does not strongly influence investments in the space program. This poll will not change the stated goals for sending humans to the Moon, and it will not lead to huge increases in planetary defense spending.

That doesn't mean we should dismiss polls like these. It is highly encouraging that space exploration remains a broadly supported, bipartisan endeavor. It also reminds us that space investments that provide a clear return on practical needs (climate, planetary defense, scientific discovery) are important to preserving NASA's value to the public.

You can read the full report and explore the polling crosstabs here.

Read more: Space Policy, human spaceflight

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Casey Dreier

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