While policymakers seem perplexed over the nation's ambitions in human space exploration, a recent sounding of public sentiment suggests there is broad support for Mars as a destination but for reasons somewhat apart from those most often mentioned, such as ensuring U.S. leadership, high-tech spin-offs and creating a catalyst for youthful scientific literacy.

Americans are most intent on dispatching humans to Mars to gain a greater science-based understanding of the planet and to search for signs of life, according to the Mars Generation survey conducted Feb. 4-6.

More than 50% believe the objectives justify a human presence. Despite current economic ills, three in four Americans believe it is worth doubling NASA's budget to achieve them—once they were told the agency receives $17.7 billion annually, according to a “snapshot” of survey results. Explore Mars and Boeing sponsored the poll in a run-up to the Humans to Mars Summit, hosted by the George Washington University Space Policy Institute in early May.

“We certainly did not expect these sorts of numbers,” said an elated Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, the Massachusetts pro-exploration non-profit and summit co-sponsor. “This is a wake-up call to our leaders that Americans are still explorers.”

Phillips & Co. of Austin, Texas, conducted the email survey from a stratified random sample of 1,101 respondents 18 and older, selected to achieve a 95% confidence level with a plus/minus 3% error margin.

Only after greater awareness and the search for life does global leadership emerge as a justification in the survey, followed by a youthful boost to science, technology, engineering and math studies; permanent settlement of Mars; domestic job stimulus, and constructive international cooperation. Most do not care whether the U.S. leads a Mars exploration initiative as long as it participates. The majority believe a public/commercial partnership will be most effective in achieving the goal, as well as in sharing the spin-offs and reining in costs.

A March 4 release of the full report will offer a breakdown of the findings by region, level of education, income and ethnicity. However, seven in 10 Americans—men and women equally and African-Americans as much as whites—expressed confidence that humans are destined to walk on Mars by 2033, according to the initial results.

Storm clouds over U. S. space policy massed in December, when the National Research Council and the Space Foundation issued long-running studies that found little enthusiasm, even within the space community, for the U.S. civil space goals outlined by President Barack Obama three years ago. Those would launch astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 before aiming for Mars a decade later.

NASA should reembrace its pioneering roots as part of a mission turnabout, while shedding many of its science and aeronautics responsibilities, the foundation suggested.

“Those reports hit the nail on the head, in the sense there is a lot of confusion within the space community,” said Carberry. “We have some broad goals, but generally we still don't really know how and when we will get to them.”

So, why the disparity? Carberry finds the August landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars, and a stream of discoveries that suggest the two-year mission will provide enlightenment on the question of life on Mars, as the likely basis for the enthusiasm.

His comments track the snapshot.

One-third of those surveyed believe astronauts should aim directly for Mars to address the prospects for life and determine whether humans can settle another world. The pursuits of a human lunar base, or a recent NASA proposal to retrieve an asteroid robotically and maneuver it into lunar orbit for human exploration lag behind. A human mission to an asteroid to develop mining techniques or a diversion strategy was ranked last.

In fairness to asteroid backers, the survey's initial findings were released four days ahead of 2012 DA14's Feb. 15 close approach to Earth and the coincidental Russian asteroid explosion. Both prompted alarm in the science community over the lack of a global strategy to forecast and possibly prevent catastrophic collisions.

That may alter public sentiment. Even so, the Mars Generation survey provides a crucial contribution.

On average, Americans believe NASA's annual budget is about 2.4% of federal spending, or $85-90 billion. In reality, the agency only receives roughly 0.5%.

The survey then strayed from convention by informing respondents of NASA's actual budget numbers. Next, it pressed on with a point raised by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson prior to Curiosity's landing. He championed an increase in NASA's funding to 1% of the federal budget, effectively doubling current civil space spending. According to the survey, 75% of Americans concur.