Americans support NASA but not a return to the moon, new poll says

Rachael Joy

On Dec. 14, 1972, astronaut Gene Cernan stepped into the Apollo 17 lunar module to return to Earth. He was the last man to walk on the moon. If it were up to most Americans, it would stay that way.

An Ipsos poll commissioned by C-SPAN for the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing suggests that only 8% of Americans say a manned moon mission should be a top priority for NASA.

"Our general mentality as American people is: been there, done that, got the T-shirt, what are we doing that for?" said former NASA administrator and current Syracuse University professor Sean O'Keefe. 

"But what if Lewis and Clark had said, we're going to go West one time and then we're going to quit, because we've done that?"

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Eighteen percent say a manned Mars mission should be a priority for NASA. The agency's current plans call for using the moon as a stepping stone to the Red Planet.

In March, the Trump administration charged NASA with the goal of returning Americans to the moon in five years, but according to the poll, 52% of Americans think space exploration should focus on satellite monitoring of the Earth to understand environmental changes, while 32% believe space exploration should focus on improving national security. 

"NASA doesn't set its goals after all; it does what the political leadership asks it to do and funds it to do," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University.

The Ipsos poll did not ask about asteroid defense, which has shown high public support in other surveys, because it is not a current NASA mission.

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"I think when people think about what these lunar missions will do, the fact that we will inspire the next generation of engineers, and scientists and medical doctors, the kind of technology that we have to invent and how that feeds back in the economy and makes our country stronger," said Mark Kirasich, Program Manager of Orion, the NASA capsule being built to send humans to the moon.

"I think these things really add up to something that's really important that people will appreciate if not today, as we get into it."

This isn't the first time public sentiment doesn't mesh with space policy. Support for a manned moon mission wasn't very high during the Apollo era, either. A 1965 Gallup poll found that only 39% of Americans thought the U.S. should do everything possible, regardless of cost, to be the first nation on the moon.

According to previous studies, the American public has a history of recognizing the value of space missions after the fact. It wasn't until 30 years after Apollo 11, in 1999, that 55% of the public felt the benefits of space exploration outweighed the billions in cost.

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That number has decreased. The new Ipsos poll found that 31% of Americans feel the benefits of space exploration exceed the cost. Another 41% say the benefits and the costs are about equal.

NASA is moving ahead with its moon mission, dubbed Artemis after the twin sister of Apollo. Its goal is to send the first woman and the next man to the moon by 2024.

One thing Americans today have in common with the Apollo era public is a desire for the U.S. to be first or to stay in the lead. When the question of lunar missions is framed as a competition with other countries, support for a moon mission is much higher.

Forty-nine percent of Americans feel "the United States should re-start their Moon explorations missions to catch-up to countries like China and Israel."

FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2018, file photo, and released by Xinhua News Agency, the Chang'e 4 lunar probe launches from the the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern China's Sichuan province. The official China Central Television says Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, the lunar explorer Chang'e 4 had touched down at 10:26 a.m to make first-ever landing on the far side of the moon. (Jiang Hongjing/Xinhua via AP, File)

"If China shows up on the moon kind of by surprise and says it's now a Chinese moon not a U.S. moon, then I think our competitive juices would get engaged," Logsdon said.

When it comes to comparing NASA to commercial space companies, NASA is overwhelmingly the favorite. Seventy-eight percent of Americans have a favorable view of NASA while only 27% think space exploration should be taken over by private businesses.

This may have to do with their desire to keep space "wild," as 52% believe most of the solar system should be preserved as official wilderness similar to national parks to limit mining of moons, asteroids or planets, all of which are stated goals of several private space companies.

As for space tourism, only 31% of Americans would travel to space if given the opportunity.

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Follow Rachael Joy on Twitter @Rachael_Joy.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Moon landing: Americans support NASA but not moon return, poll shows