The Pew Research Center released poll results yesterday that concluded that Americans wants the US to remain leaders in space exploration. Fifty-eight percent of those polled said they agreed it was “essential” that the US “continue to be a world leader in space exploration”. Slightly higher positive responses came from people with family incomes in excess of $75,000, and somewhat more Republicans said yes than Democrats or independents; there was little differentiation based on education.
This is the first time that Pew has asked this question, so there are no comparable previous poll results. (Pew asked in the same poll if the shuttle program had been a good investment for the country, and 55% said yes; that sounds good until you see that in previous polls in the 1980s that number had been as high as 73%.) However, one problem with the question is that the poll doesn’t define what it means for the US to be a “world leader” in space exploration. Does it mean having any kind of human spaceflight program? One that is oriented to going to the Moon? to Mars? to a near Earth asteroid? One that relies exclusively on its own government-owned and -operated crewed spacecraft, or one that purchases flights to at least low Earth orbit? Or, perhaps, one that places a much greater emphasis on robotic planetary exploration over human spaceflight altogether? Different people can have very different reasons for answering yes. Perhaps more telling, though, is that no matter how you define leadership in space exploration, nearly two in five Americans polled don’t think it’s essential.