americans want to remain leaders in space, but they seldom want to pay for it

A recent Pew study about American attitudes on space exploration may seem like exciting news for NASA and space exploration advocates, but it doesn’t ask the questions that really matter.

Crewed BFR modules in landing/launch zones next to a Martian colony SpaceX
Crewed BFR modules in landing/launch zones next to a Martian colony (SpaceX)

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 7 in 10 Americans want their country to remain a global leader in space exploration in a survey that seems to be quite positive about our spacefaring future. While those surveyed appeared split on NASA’s role in the future, they were quite positive about its scientific mission, wanted it to study climate change, look for dangerous asteroids, and work with more commercial space companies to get humans into orbit and to other worlds. Some 8 in 10 also had good things to say about the International Space Station, agreeing that it was a good investment for the nation. Overall, Americans seem to be excited about space and agree with scientists on core research priorities.

But there were important questions missing from the survey to gauge whether this general excitement and agreement would translate into more dollars for space exploration. Americans have a tendency to think that NASA is funded several orders of magnitude better than it is and favor cutting its budget in tough times. What Pew may be seeing is just agreement with letting the agency and space-focused startups do their things because the economy is more or less humming along so far reflected in innocuous questions. When asking people if they’d want to see more money to go to NASA and private contractors, the results tend to be a mixed bag as more immediate priorities overtake the utopian ideas they were just entertaining.

It would be very problematic to draw any conclusions from this survey because it’s doing the equivalent of asking diners in a restaurant how they like the food and what they think about the menu without mentioning costs or asking how much more they’d be willing to pay for their meals. If a chef were to use this survey to justify hiking prices to afford top shelf ingredients and the time to present the dishes in a style that wouldn’t look out of place in an Iron Chef competition, he’s bound to get a lot of surprised looks from patrons caught of guard by the changes. Sure, they love the results. They just didn’t know if they wanted to pay for it even if the dish is objectively better by virtually every important criterion.

This is in part why a majority of Americans didn’t think the Apollo program was worth it, even despite its Cold War significance, and why it’s unlikely that they’ll be that willing to part with even more money to return to the Moon or put astronauts on Mars. But what about private space companies, you might ask, they’d have the money for this, right? The answer to that is a very emphatic no. SpaceX and its competitors will need billions of dollars in government research and development funds to keep flying and building their interplanetary spacecraft, and their first customers will be agencies like NASA and ESA sending astronauts on scientific missions.

Until we have a thriving space tourism industry, the vast majority of cash for space exploration will be public. Make no mistake, the ultimate future of space travel needs to be in private hands for a wide variety of reasons, but we as a society need to invest in them first and provide the necessary startup capital. We’ve spent more than $7 trillion on bailing out banks and all it got us was more than three decades of stagnant wages, aimless populism, and nihilistic memes. Maybe we can try investing even a hundredth of that into our actual future instead of playing math games with large arbitrary sums on a computer screen?

# space // nasa / space exploration / space tourism


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