Poll Challenges Some Assumptions About Human Mars Missions


Americans confident humans will join robots on Mars  Photo Credit: NASA

A recent national poll finds a majority in the U.S. enthusiastic about the human exploration of Mars in spite of the country's financial ills -- and for reasons that seem to challenge traditional thinking: to achieve a greater understanding of the neighboring planet and to search for signs of past or present life.

Those justifications accounted for just over 50 percent of the support in the Feb. 4-6 Mars Generation survey conducted by the market research firm Phillips & Company for Explore Mars, Inc.,  the pro exploration non-profit, and the Boeing Corp.

Sustaining U.S. leadership in the field as a justification ranked third at 15 percent; and jobs creation resonated with just over 5 percent. Mars exploration as a new source of inspiration to improve a lagging youthful mastery of math, science and engineering impressed just over 10 percent.

The findings, gathered to pre-stage the Human to Mars Summit on May 6-8 at George Washington University, seem contrary to the conventional justifications offered by exploration advocates as well as the political set,  namely U.S. leadership, new tech and a boost for STEM.

Americans now seem genuinely interested in knowing more about Mars -- how it evolved, if its history includes biological activity and whether the planet can be settled. This interest was likely stirred by the successful landing of NASA's Curiosity on the red planet in August, according to Explore Mars executive director Chris Carberry.

Curiosity rover sparks interest in human Mars exploration.   Image credit/NASA

What's more, the survey found that seven in 10 Americans  -- men and women alike -- are confident humans will walk on Mars by 2033. Most do not care whether the U.S. leads a Mars exploration initiative or not, as long as it participates. The majority believe a public/private partnership will be most effective in achieving the goal, as well as in sharing the spin offs and reigning in costs.

"We certainly did not expect these sorts of numbers," said Carberry. "This is a wakeup call to our leaders that Americans are still explorers."

Explore Mars will join with the GWU's Space Policy Institute to sponsor the Human to Mars Summit, which is reaching out to educators as well as the aerospace industry, lawmakers, and policy makers to address the major technical, scientific and policy related challenges of reaching the red planet.

There's more in the survey results that seem to challenge conventional space wisdom.

The poll found initial re-enforcement for a common misperception: that NASA is awash with funding. Most respondents pegged NASA's annual budget at 2.4 percent of federal spending, or between $85 billion and $90 billion.

In reality, NASA receives approximately 0.5 percent of the federal budget, or about $17.7 billion.

The Phillips & Company survey then strayed from convention by informing respondents of the actual budget numbers, then pressed on with a point raised prior to Curiosity's landing by astronomer and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson championed an increase in NASA spending to 1 percent of the federal budget, effectively doubling current annual civil  space spending.

The poll found that 75 percent of Americans "strongly agree" or "agree," with deGrasse Tyson's position once they were provided with NASA's actual budget.

So, what stands between the nation's current presence in space and achieving a human expedition to Mars by 2033?

Those surveyed suggested it is the cost, 73 percent, and politics, 67 percent. The technical capabilities and motivation are largely in place, according to those surveyed.

So, apparently is public support.

Again, that seems to challenge the characterizations presented in a pair of recent reports on civil space by the National Research Council and the Space Foundation. Those studies found little enthusiasm for current U. S. civil space goals of reaching an asteroid with human explorers by 2025 and the Martian environs a decade or so later -- even within the space community.

As a remedy, The Space Foundation suggested NASA return to its exploratory roots by shedding other missions. The foundation suggested several options for aligning the agency's budget and management with the task of executing challenging, long term goals.

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

What the Mars Generation survey seems to have found is an audience receptive to focus.

"Policy makers and NASA should  take a look at it and find a way to create a program that really reflects the national desire," said Carberry. "Our main problem with having a bold space program has not been money as much as our ability to stick with a program. If we pick a mission, we need to stick with it."

The survey results are considered a "snap shot" of more extensive findings that  Explore Mars and Boeing intend to release in early March. The complete poll will break down the findings by region, level of education, income and ethnicity.

Phillips and Company polled a stratified random nationwide sample of 1,101 people by e-mail. The goal was a 95 percent confidence level, with a +3/-3 percent margin of error.

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