Mark Whittington points out a survey conducted by Dittmar Associates, a Houston-area business and IT consulting firm, on public attitudes towards space exploration. The survey is listed at $950 a pop, so I haven’t read the actual content, but their summary of results teaser includes some interesting information:
- Endorsement of the space program in general is very strong, with 69% of Americans voicing their support.
Given the nearly 50-50 partisan split, this indicates a decent level of bipartisan support. Of course, the devil in the details here is the distribution of that 69%…if the bulk of the support is on the Democratic side, for example, it is likely to mean less in a Republican-controlled government. Then there is the matter of how “the space program” is defined…if the surveys have been conducted in the past two months, could some of this support actually be a by-product of the successful SpaceShipOne flights, which have nothing to do with what would typically be considered “the space program”, i.e.:NASA?
- Interest and excitement about the Vision for Space Exploration is strong for near-term aspects of the plan (65% of Americans responded positively) and for returning to the Moon. This is not true for plans to send humans to Mars, which is seen as involving much more risk (18% of Americans responded positively).
Mark and Rand consider this to be bad news for humans-to-Mars, but it may not be as simple as that. Much of the attention the VSE has received has been on the near-term aspects for which the survey sees public support — these aspects, including a new crewed vehicle and a return to the Moon, are better defined and have, in some form, been done before. Which is to say, the general public is more comfortable with and confident in those VSE goals which they already know to be achievable. The description of manned Mars missions as “involving much more risk” points in this direction: it seems risky, perhaps too risky for 82% of those surveyed, because it is something which hasn’t been done before.
As what Rand might term a “Barsoomophile” (the blog’s name sorta gives it away, eh?), I don’t find this in the least bit surprising nor disappointing — nor is strong public support for humans-to-Mars required at the moment. We need to go to the Moon first for a variety of reasons, and the survey shows support for that element of the VSE. If the lack of similar support for Mars really is rooted in the perceived risk, that perception will surely change (or be amenable to change) by the time we are ready to undertake such missions, having demonstrated hardware, new (civil and private) space infrastructure, and fresh experience operating in distant, harsh planetary environments to work with.
- Out of 5 options, Americans ranked ?International participation and cost-sharing? as their #1 choice for funding the Vision ? with certain conditions.
I sure would like to know what those “conditions” are.
- There are large and significant differences in the degree of enthusiasm about the plan on the basis of sex, ethnic groups, age, and other variables.
Ditto for these demographic differences.
- Americans understand and appreciate the benefits of the space program (?spin-offs?, science, and the impact of space-based technology developments to daily lives).
While the notion of spinoffs is seen by others with some distaste, I think it is only natural that the public appreciates “the space program” on the basis of how it benefits their daily lives — they are looking for (and apparently finding) a return on their “investment” in space exploration activities. It would be nice, yes, if people supported space activities for the “right” reasons espoused by different branches of the space advocacy community, such as a dramatic and inspirational expanding of the frontier, the spawning of a new branch of civilization, insurance against extinction events and other calamities, or simply as a vast new economic sphere to be developed for profit. And yes, there is the danger that the pursuit of spinoffs as the primary justification for space exploration (rather than space exploration resulting in spinoffs as a side effect, as the term implies) pushes “the space program” in unhelpful directions. But this expectation of a return is not an inherently bad thing, and is what all the visionary goals ultimately boil down to anyway.
- Americans believe that much more can be done to promote NASA and its goals.
One wonders what NASA goals were specified for the respondents. The agency could certainly do more to promote the goals contained within the VSE. I’m not sure about promoting NASA is necessarily a positive, however, as it sounds uncomfortably like promoting the myth that space is/should be the sole province of NASA — it all depends on what NASA is being promoted as and promoted for.