NASA’s priorities appear to be out of whack with what the public wants

The Trump administration has vowed to make America great again in spaceflight, and the centerpiece of its space policy to date has been a re-prioritization of human spaceflight as central to NASA’s activities. As part of this initiative, the White House has sought to reduce funding for satellites to observe environmental changes on Earth and eliminate NASA’s office of education.

However, a new survey of 2,541 Americans by Pew Research Center, which aims to represent the views of US adults, finds that these views appear to be out of step with public priorities.

The survey asked respondents about their top priorities for NASA, and the highest support came for “monitor key parts of the Earth’s climate system” (63 percent) and “monitor asteroids/objects that could hit the Earth” (62 percent). Sending astronauts to Mars (18 percent), and the Moon (13 percent), lagged far behind as top priorities for respondents.

“We found that to be pretty surprising,” said Cary Funk, who led the study. This is partly because a focus on crewed missions has been such a highly visible facet of NASA past exploration program, and because the agency has made a big deal out of sending humans to Mars and, more recently, a human return to 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 a whole lot about other missions that the agency is engaged in.”

What is striking about these results is that public priorities, at least according to the Pew study, are pretty much the inverse of NASA’s spending priorities, which are set by the White House and Congress. NASA spends the largest chunk of its budget, approximately $4 billion annually, on developing a large Space Launch System rocket, its ground systems, and the Orion spacecraft to build the foundation of a program to send humans to the Moon and Mars. Secondarily, 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 that we should have a space program that saves Earth,” said Phil Larson, a former Obama White House official who now is assistant dean at the University of Colorado College of Engineering. “That means funding climate research and ensuring that we can track all threatening objects from space and have a plan for what to do with them—in essence, be smarter than the dinosaurs.”

By contrast, the White House and Republicans in Congress, perhaps most notably Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have sought to cut funding for Earth-science-related work at NASA. Moreover, the agency spends almost no money on finding threatening asteroids. The agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office has an annual budget of about $50 million to find, catalog, and study asteroids that could potentially threaten Earth.

The results of the survey 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 people increasingly recognize,” Lu told Ars. “The Chelyabinsk meteor woke a lot of people up.” Lu is referring to a 20-meter asteroid that brilliantly broke apart in the atmosphere above Russia in 2013.

If the White House and Congress were to get really serious about planetary defense, Lu said, it would fully fund the development of a space-based telescope (such as NEOCam) to find potentially hazardous asteroids and support research efforts to identify other threats that may sneak past Earth-based and space-based telescopes. The space agency should also be allowed to proceed with missions such as the Double Asteroid Redirect Test mission and other efforts to deflect incoming threats. A comprehensive planetary defense program, Lu said, would probably cost less than $500 million annually.

Private space

The survey also suggests that not much of the American public pays attention to space, with just 7 percent of Americans saying they’ve heard or read “a lot” about NASA and private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX over the last year.

For the first time, Pew also asked several questions about private companies, “such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic,” that are developing space exploration capabilities. Strong majorities of respondents had a fair or great amount of confidence these companies would “build safe and reliable rockets and spacecraft” (80 percent), and “control costs for developing rockets and spacecraft” (65 percent).

When asked to look ahead to how human spaceflight will progress over the next half century, respondents were skeptical about space tourism and colonies on other worlds. Only 50 percent of those surveyed agreed that people will “routinely travel to space as tourists,” and just 32 percent agreed that humans would “build colonies on other planets that can be lived in for long periods” by 2068.

The space tourism response is a bit surprising, because it’s likely that either Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic will begin flying tourists into suborbital space within the next 12 to 18 months, with orbital trips plausibly occurring within the next five to 10 years. Perhaps this response can be expected, however, from a general public that acknowledges paying little attention to space and spaceflight news.

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