This Is What Most Americans Think NASA Should Really Be Doing - And It's Not What You'd Expect

The Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off back in 1993. Crewed missions to other worlds are still thought of as important by the US public, but other priorities dominate these days. JSC/NASA

According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, Americans still care deeply about space science – but there's an optimistic twist in the tale.

The survey, conducted between March 27 and April 9 this year using a representative sample of the US population, has some good news for NASA: 72 percent of respondents said that it’s “essential” that the US continues to be a world leader in space exploration, with 65 percent saying that NASA must continue to be involved.

Private space companies are edging into the popular consciousness, though, with 33 percent thinking private companies will ensure that enough progress is made in space exploration, even without NASA taking part. The way things are going, though, the future is likely to involve plenty of both.

Here, however, is where things get interesting. The participants were asked to rate the importance of nine space-related missions that NASA is involved in. They were allowed to rate them in three different ways: top priority, important but lower priority, or not too important/should not be done. Now, take a look at the results:

Pew Research Center

That’s right: sending astronauts to the Moon and to Mars were ranked the lowest, with – drum roll please – keeping an eye on Earth’s climate taking the top spot.

That’s fascinating for several reasons. Obviously, it’s a sign that the American public is very aware of the importance of understanding how our climate works, almost certainly in relation to anthropogenic climate change – although to be fair, this question didn’t mention climate change specifically.

More importantly, perhaps, is that it shows how out of touch the Trump administration is with the mood of the public. Even before the President’s inauguration, transition officials were practically boasting that they would be shutting down government climate and environmental monitoring programs, including those being undertaken by NASA.

In fact, every budget plan released by the White House features draconian cuts to these programs, with multiple satellite initiatives only saved thanks to the intransigent nature of Congress which, lest we forget, is controlled by the same party that’s represented in the Oval Office.

Saying that, plenty of Republicans – particularly those on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology – have been far keener on space exploration, and have been either apathetic or hostile towards any climate change research in this regard. The White House, for its part, often releases statements beaming about the potential for crewed missions to Mars and particularly the Moon.

This survey, then, stands in stark juxtaposition with those attitudes.

“We were struck by these findings showing the share of Americans who consider either sending astronauts to the Moon or to Mars a top priority for NASA far below the share who see other missions as top priorities for the agency,” Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at Pew Research Center, told IFLScience.

Noting that “sending astronauts into space has historically been one of the more visible aspects of US space efforts from the public perspective,” Funk also points out that they haven’t collected data about such public priorities before in the past. “It’s impossible to know whether this is a new phenomenon.”

There is, of course, no evidence that large numbers oppose such missions – “fewer than 1 in 10 thought either mission should not be done" – but still, climate research ruling the roost is worth highlighting.

Pew Research Survey

The survey has a few other curious findings: 58 percent believe that astronauts are essential in space exploration, whereas 41 percent say astronauts aren’t essential – but robots are. At the same time, around 50 percent believe that within the next 50 years, space tourism will be commonplace.

Whatever the future brings, it’s hard not to be a little optimistic about it when Americans rank monitoring the climate – something that affects all 7.62 billion of us – so highly.

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