A report released two months ago concluded there was no national consensus on NASA’s strategic direction, including a lack of agreement on a long-term destination for human space exploration. Two polls released this week, each with their own issues, appear to have inadvertently confirmed that assessment.
A “preliminary snapshot report” of a poll commissioned by Explore Mars and Boeing found that 75% of respondents agreed that NASA’s budget should be increased to 1% of the overall federal budget to fund a mission—presumably, although not explicitly stated, to be human—to Mars. (The Phillips & Company poll found that that, on average, people thought NASA already got about 2.5% of the federal budget, rather than the approximately 0.5% it actually gets.) That interest in a human Mars mission rises to 84% if Curiosity finds evidence of past or present life. 71% of people said they were “confident” humans would go to Mars by 2033 (67% of people said they were confident humans would go to Mars in their lifetime, suggesting some respondents were in touch with their mortality.)
Another poll, though, suggests humans wouldn’t want to stay there. A poll by YouGov for The Huffington Post finds that 79% of people think’s it’s not very likely or nor at all likely there will be a human colony on Mars in their lifetime. Only 7% of people said they wold be definitely interested in being part of such a colony, while 56% said no, they’re not at all interested in moving to Mars.
Is it possible to reconcile these polls: are people interested in supporting human exploration of Mars, but don’t think it’ll lead to anything more? Perhaps. Only 10% of the respondents in the Explore Mars/Boeing poll said that establishing a permanent settlement was the top reason for going to Mars, ahead of only creating jobs on Earth and supporting international cooperation among the rationales provided; achieving a “greater understanding of Mars” was the most popular choice.
And it’s possible that the polls themselves have flaws. The YouGov poll contains only three questions, all about human colonies on Mars: an odd, out-of-the-blue topic to be asking people about. There are also potentially selection issues, as YouGov polls are from a self-selected panel of people “who like to express and share their opinions, and earn points along the way.” The poll results also lack any demographics or other information about who responded, other than that it’s based on “1,000 adult interviews” with a margin of error of 3.4%.
The Explore Mars/Boeing poll results also lack, for the time being, demographic information, although the organizations state in the preliminary poll results that the full report “with demographic data” will be released on March 4. Some have questioned the poll results on other grounds, including that the head of Phillips & Company is a member of the board of advisors of Explore Mars and thus poses a potential conflict of interest.
It’s possible that the confusion in the poll results reflects a confusion in society: that “lack of national consensus” identified in the National Research Council report in December. Or, perhaps, people don’t think much about sending humans to explore and/or settle Mars; understandably so. It’s worth noting that the new human spaceflight study underway by the National Academies, as directed by the 2010 NASA authorization act, includes a number of panelists with expertise in public surveys: perhaps a new assessment of public interest in and support for human spaceflight, including missions to Mars, will come of that.