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Americans want to be leaders in space exploration. But what does that mean?

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.

26 comments to Americans want to be leaders in space exploration. But what does that mean?

  • Another problem is the lack of a precise definition of, and focus on, “exploration.” Where are the questions about settlement and development of space resources?

  • 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.
    Interesting stat, especially to the retro nationalists.

    But one they will conveniently ignore since it doesn’t fit their reality they’re constantly creating.

  • In regards as to whether the Shuttle was a “good investment” and what lessons from it should be applied to SLS, the following article was published in Technology Review:
    http://www.technologyreview.com/computing/37981/?a=f

  • Duncan

    I am also concerned about how the word ‘leader’ is used not just here, but everywhere. Leadership does not mean being the first to be there, nor does it mean having more than others, nor does it mean being more powerful than others. None of those are leadership. If that is what people want – to be the first, to have more, to be more powerful – then those are the words that should be used. Leadership implies a cooperative relationship with followers to achieve common objectives, mutual respect (however earned), a sense of responsibility to followers to find the best way to mobilize their collective effort towards the common objectives. The poll should have asked whether the US should be the leader for the rest of the world in respect of space exploration in the same sense that the President is the leader of the United States, the NASA administrator is the leader of civil space efforts and Commander STRATCOM is the leader of military space efforts. As an Australian who, like most of us, thinks pretty highly of the United States and its efforts in space exploration in particular (http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/address-congress-united-states-washington), this is the leadership we would really like to see.

  • Das Boese

    I see American “Leadership” primarily in robotic exploration and science missions, not human spaceflight. I’d say that area is, at best, a tie between Russia and the US, but it’s kinda hard to compare because of the different approaches and circumstances of the US and Russian space programs.

    But the general problem -not just in the US- is that people are pretty oblivious to what’s actually going on up there, isn’t it?
    Unsurprising of course since space stuff is rarely mentioned in the media, and even then it’s usually a short notice about the latest shuttle flight or a pretty picture from a robotic mission and that’s it.

  • Mark R, Whittington

    Clearly it can be conjectured that when most people think about leadership in space, they think about human beings doing things there. The fact that “two out of five” don’t think space leadership is essential is not significant. There is not broad consensus in this country about anything. A large majority should be enough in our political system to go forward, however.

  • Bob Mahoney

    What such a poll (with such broad questions) demonstrates above all is that a majority of the country (or more likely the pollsters themselves) understand little of what is important about spaceflight in the particulars, and only see ‘spaceflight’ or ‘space exploration’ as some hazy cloud of activities with no more depth or detail (less, even) than an summary entry for a single-volume encyclopedia.

    Which, I’m sure, doesn’t surprise any of us.

  • The administration’s silly focus on attempting to send humans to an asteroid would be a titanic waste of NASA’s time, resources, and tax payer dollars. It would be far more efficient and far less costly to send dozens of robotic probes to dozens of NEO asteroids rather than sending humans to one or two asteroids.

    America will not be a leader in space if it does not win its water rights on the lunar surface. And the SLS could be the first major step towards achieving that goal.

  • Aggelos

    Who cares about leadership?
    I am Greek and I just want to go to maarss ,the planets,,…

    To the Starss..

    Whatever nation can do that I dont care..
    Usa is closer,,,so lets goo..

  • Jeff:

    Thanks for posting this survey! Great stuff.

    There are many ways to look at these numbers. The word “essential” suggest that it is a must-have.

    Those who said that it is not essential might just be saying that we could survive without it, but most of those could, in theory, be strongly in favor of space exploration. However, we know that there are many, including some in Congress, who have suggested that it is unnecessary and wasteful.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Mark R, Whittington wrote @ July 6th, 2011 at 11:25 am

    “Clearly it can be conjectured that when most people think about leadership in space, they think about human beings doing things there. ”

    You conjectured that Saddam was going to kill us all, but that turned out not to be true or accurate, you conjecture that the Chinese are going to take over the Moon, but again there seems no data for it.

    And that is accurate here. That barely a majority (and a decreasing number at that) thought that the shuttle was worth the money seems to make the statement you author void.

    Rand on his site has some good questions; but in the end the question is without resolution.

    However; if humans in space were producing tax revenue instead of endlessly consuming it. If humans in space had been part of the equation of bringing commercial launch back to the US creating “real jobs” not technowelfare jobs…if humans in space were part of doing things which showed some real return on the investment…..it is likely that “more” people would support those activities.

    “There is not broad consensus in this country about anything.”

    that is wrong. There is actually broad consensus on a lot of things. Large numbers (over 60 percent) want (according to Charlie Cook polling)…the end of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, an end to the US involvement in Afland, a single payer health care system, and they dont like Ryan’s medicare/caid plan. And by large numbers (over 60) they dont like the GOP House.

    Robert G. Oler

  • This is what it means:

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – NASA is funded at $16.8 billion in the bill, which is $1.6 billion below last year’s level and $1.9 billion below the President’s request. This funding includes:
    •$3.65 billion for Space Exploration which is $152 million below last year. This includes funding above the request for NASA to meet Congressionally mandated program deadlines for the newly authorized crew vehicle and launch system.
    •$4.1 billion for Space Operations which is $1.4 billion below last year’s level. The legislation will continue the closeout of the Space Shuttle program for a savings of $1 billion.
    •$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

    http://appropriations.house.gov/news/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=250023

  • reader

    Another problem is the lack of a precise definition of, and focus on, “exploration.” Where are the questions about settlement and development of space resources?

    Seconded. Ask anyone “should we be seriously spending money on settling space ?” or “Is NASA working on space settlement?” and you’d be flabbergasted.

  • Mark R, Whittington

    Oler, sometimes I shudder what it must be like to be you. Of course, they told me that if I voted for McCain, the deficit would go out of control, the Middle East would slide into chaos, and the space program would be all be ruined–and they were right!

  • Of course, they told me that if I voted for McCain, the deficit would go out of control, the Middle East would slide into chaos, and the space program would be all be ruined–and they were right!

    When did they tell you that? Who were they?

  • DCSCA

    “Americans want to be leaders in space exploration. But what does that mean?” You answered w/your own questions:

    Does it mean having any kind of human spaceflight program?- Yes.

    One that is oriented to going to the Moon? to Mars?- Yes.

    To a near Earth asteroid?- Yes.

    One that relies exclusively on its own government-owned and -operated crewed spacecraft, or one that purchases flights to at least low Earth orbit?- No- an either/or exclusivity is a false choice. A suite of mixed operations is inevitable for HSF operations.

    Or, perhaps, one that places a much greater emphasis on robotic planetary exploration over human spaceflight altogether?- An old proposal. Probes have always led the way before HSF followed along and, in many cases, are the only way to explore destinations w/environments deadly to human beings.

    The point is general ‘leadership.’ The specifics don’t necessarily demand Americans take a leading role but can partner w/other nations. And to the vast majority of average Americans with busy lives and who have little personal interest or have a livlihood associated w/t space program, that general ‘leadership’ is largely emblematic, reprsenting of American pride, American enterprise and American commitment to leading the world into the future. You know- the ‘Cernan intangibles.’ The ‘intangibles’ Americans embrace as symbold of national leadership.

    @Robert G. Oler wrote @ July 6th, 2011 at 1:52 pm
    “Rand on his site has some good questions; but in the end the question is without resolution.”

    Nonsense. It doesnt agree w/t message so it attacks the messenger and their methodology.

  • DCSCA

    “However; if humans in space were producing tax revenue instead of endlessly consuming it. If humans in space had been part of the equation of bringing commercial launch back to the US creating “real jobs” not technowelfare jobs…if humans in space were part of doing things which showed some real return on the investment…..it is likely that “more” people would support those activities.” <– Goofy. Shill talk.

  • if humans in space were part of doing things which showed some real return on the investment…..it is likely that “more” people would support those activities.” <– Goofy. Shill talk.

    Goofy. Moron troll talk.

  • The US House has, this week, surrendered America’s pursuit of that mantle.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Mark R, Whittington wrote @ July 6th, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    McCain would probably not have been able to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the uber rich either which means the deficit would have continued its spiral.

    The MidEast is evolving and thats not going to be pretty…but it is change and lets see how it works out. At least and unlike during Bush’s time, Americans are not dying in the process.

    Space policy? It was doomed the minute Bush bought into a return to the Moon, as I predicted.

    We would not be in this mess had Bush not screwed everything up. RGO

  • Vladislaw

    If the Federal government is going to “explore”, for me it should be primarily one thing, resources. Once the resources are found, the government should then act as the pump primer for our free enterprise system and our entrepreneurs to exploit the resources. If we are not prepared to push our commercial interests immediately into the resources exploration is automatically a losing (taxpayer funding) proposition and will never be sustainable. You should only have to do one ‘Lewis and Clark’ mission to locate resources on a space body (along with probes) and commercial enterprise could start exploiting.

    I do not put science in exploration per say. The pure science should beable to stand on it’s own. Once commercial start digging, NASA scientists can be looking though the layers for the science, just like what happens in mining operations on earth. I would include the sciences needed to create the systems for exploration/exploitation, like materials science for example.

  • Louis

    we have NO leadership. the American public is used to having REAL leaders. Without that, Americans don’t know what to do. Americans don’t realize much of the technology that we use is a direct relationship to reasearch from space research. What kind of research?…….well that includes Human Space Exploration…….duhhhhh.

    Bolden and Obama have no realistic plan, nor the guts to take the leadership positions nessessary to keep America # 1 in this industry.
    They are self serving and don’t care about this industry or what happens to NASA.

    They both talk a good talk, but can’t walk.

  • Coastal Ron

    Louis wrote @ July 10th, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Bolden and Obama have no realistic plan…

    Bush/Griffin claimed to have a realistic plan for Constellation, and Congress just cancelled it because of mismanagement. What does that tell you?

    What it tells me is that NASA does a better job when it is allowed to stick close to it’s charter. Some in Congress want it to be a transportation company, just like what it was for 30 years with Shuttle, but that’s not NASA’s charter.

    NASA’s self-described mission statement is to “pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.

    The word “pioneer” is key here, because that implies doing it the first time, but then letting others follow and take over. We also have to do it in a sustainable way, since maybe you haven’t noticed, but NASA’s budget could get cut significantly.

    So NASA can either spend money to do everything themselves, or they can teach the aerospace industry how to follow them and take over. In that way the Flexible Plan does just fine, since NASA can do small increments affordably and fast, and doesn’t have to shoulder the whole economic load.

    Until that happens, everyone that tries to do one of your “realistic plans” will likely fail in the same way Griffin did with Constellation.

  • Das Boese

    Louis wrote @ July 10th, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    we have NO leadership. the American public is used to having REAL leaders.

    What has always fascinated me about America is the conflicting values that seem to exist within the culture. On one hand “leader figures” command respect, admiration and sometimes undying loyalty, but there is also a deep-seated antiauthoritarian culture of inherent distrust in anything government-related.

    Not that this isn’t a conflict that exists in nearly any free society, but in America the sheer magnitude of dissonance seems to be on a wholly different level.

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