A new national poll released two weeks ago helped to characterize the level of American support for Mars exploration. In these complex times, are Americans in favor of human exploration of the Mars? The answer is an unequivocal YES.
Basically over 70 percent of "the" Americans believe that we should send humans to Mars to explore the planet, and that it is ok to spend up to one percent of the federal budget on NASA (over twice the agency's current budget) to do so.
The Mars Generation National Opinion Poll shows strong support for human space flight to Mars and other destinations. As the lead organization that launched this poll, we at Explore Mars were hopeful for positive results, but we were also fully prepared to hear less than favorable responses to the questions. After all, we are living through tough economic and budgetary times. But as it turns out, Americans are very optimistic about the future of human space exploration.
To be clear, though Explore Mars commissioned this poll, it was executed by an independent and nonbiased polling organization following procedures to assure objective poll results. Between Feb. 4 and Feb. 6, 2013, the survey targeted a nationwide stratified random sample of 1,101 respondents of the general U.S. adult population. The survey was conducted by email, representing a 95 percent confidence level and margin of error of +/-3 percent.
After being told for years that "the general public" had lost interest in human space flight, the results were quite enlightening:
- 71 percent of respondents believe that we will land on Mars by 2033
- 67 percent of respondents believed that we should send both humans and robots to Mars.
- 83 percent believe that we should strengthen and expand partnerships with the private sector to send humans to explore Mars.
- 75 percent of respondents thought that the NASA budget should be increased to one percent of the federal budget if we committed to a human mission to Mars.
- There was very little difference between men and women or among different ethnic or economic backgrounds.
Our poll is the first national survey to focus exclusively on Mars exploration and missions related to human space flight beyond the moon. We took great care in our methodology to ensure that all questions were written objectively with a focus on specific missions in order to gauge support for those missions.
Over the years we have encountered many people who believe that NASA receives a substantial part of the federal budget. This led us to ask our respondents what percentage of the federal budget is allocated to funding NASA. We gave them the choice between zero and six percent. On average, respondents believed that NASA represents 2.47 percent of the federal budget -- five times the actual percentage (approximately 0.5 percent). Then we provided participants with the proper answer before they took the rest if the survey.
It is clear that once they are given budgetary context, the general public vote for human space flight with their passion and/or their sense of curiosity and wonder. Is it any wonder that, with such an elevated perception of how much NASA costs, other polls have been less favorable -- particularly when so many of those polls emphasize tough budgetary times, yet do not provide the budgetary context that this poll did?
Budgetary context was not the only reason for these results, of course. Budgetary reality apparently helped remove the guilt factor for many of the participants. Another significant factor was almost certainly recent missions to Mars. NASA landed the Curiosity rover successfully on the Martian surface last August, an incredible engineering feat, which clearly made an impression on the American public. The Curiosity mission was sent to determine whether Mars was capable of sustaining life in the past or present and also to give us a better understanding of any risks a human crew may encounter on Mars. In addition, over the last 15 years NASA has conducted a great number of successful missions that have shown that Mars is not a dead rock but a living, breathing world (whether there is actual life on Mars or not).
The reaction to the poll has been largely favorable but also gave us some unexpected views as some bloggers accused the American people of being deluded for thinking that we can land on Mars by 2033. Nobody will question that the political and fiscal challenges that we face are significant, but technologically and scientifically, we can absolutely have humans on Mars before 2030. That is not wild optimism. That is an engineering fact.
The problem with many of the pundits is that they thrive on the negative -- on what can't be achieved, on our inevitable decline. Those people, claiming to be realists, exist in every age. However, theirs is not realism but the surrendering to a challenge.
The fact that the American people are so optimistic about the future of space exploration is a great sign for the future. Not just for space exploration, but for the overall fortunes of our nation. The optimism that we are frequently told is slipping away is still there. It is just waiting for us to awaken from a temporary phase of pessimism and to start pushing against the boundaries of all that is possible.