NASA’s focus should not be on the cosmos but on Earth, according to a wide-ranging Bloomberg poll of Americans’ views on space.
Observing the climate should be NASA’s “top priority,” according to 43 percent of those surveyed, who chose from six possible options. One-quarter said the agency should monitor asteroids and other space objects. Only 3 percent said NASA’s top focus should be sending astronauts to the moon, while a mere 8 percent said a human trip to Mars or other planets should be the agency’s main goal.
The findings point to a stark contrast with NASA’s current focus on human spaceflight and deep-space exploration, as the agency works on a lunar orbital platform for the early 2020s and a mission to Mars in the 2030s.
The poll was conducted for Bloomberg Businessweek by research firm Morning Consult, which surveyed 2,202 U.S. adults in July.
Most people view space issues through a prism of relevance to one’s daily life, said Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society, which lobbies for greater funding of space science and exploration. “What’s relevant to people? Climate change,” he said. “Going to the moon and going to Mars, presented without context, probably doesn’t sound very important to people.”
Under the Obama administration, NASA’s Earth Science program saw the fastest growth of any science division at the agency, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has sought to revamp NASA’s $21 billion budget to foster private-sector commercial activity in low Earth orbit and deeper forays into the solar system. But the vast majority of Americans said government should play a major role in space exploration, while only 38 percent said the same for private-sector companies.
The administration has sought to reduce funding for research on oceans, the atmosphere and climate. “We want to do some climate science, but we aren’t going to do some of the crazy stuff that the previous administration did,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in May 2017 while discussing Trump’s first budget proposal.
Congress ultimately boosted NASA’s overall budget for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 to nearly $20.7 billion, part of a defense spending binge that also benefited nondefense projects. For 2019 the White House is seeking approximately $19.9 billion for NASA, with more than $123 million in cuts to Earth Science.
Dreier said it’s unlikely Congress would reverse itself one year later and cut the NASA science programs, especially as the Republican-controlled chamber is seeking to pass a budget with minimal partisan fighting over relatively small expenditures.
Still, the Trump administration’s budget proposal would end four Earth Science initiatives:
— OCO-3 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3), an instrument designed to monitor carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how it relates to growing urban populations and fossil fuel combustion, which has not yet launched.
— PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem), a mission to monitor the planet’s ocean health, which has not yet launched.
— CLARREO (Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory), a mission that uses a reflected solar spectrometer to make highly accurate climate predictions.
— DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory), a space weather and Earth observation satellite that monitors solar wind conditions.
In terms of space travel, 39 percent of poll respondents said the U.S. spends “just the right amount,” while 37 percent said the country spends too little. On the topic of space tourism, 43 percent said they were very or somewhat likely to book a trip if they could afford it. But 56 percent were unlikely to go.
Of those unlikely to go, 41 percent had no interest in zooming into space even if it were affordable. An additional 40 percent cited a more basic reason to avoid this thrill ride: fear.
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