President Donald Trump loves NASA in the way that someone completely out of touch with Earth loves NASA. While his opinions on most science issues range from impartial to angry, he thinks of NASA as part of America’s national identity and is ready to throw the agency cash. But he only wants to fund very specific parts of NASA: putting humans on the Moon, on Mars, and in a militarized space fleet. As a new survey reveals, these don’t exactly reflect the parts of space Americans actually care about.
According to a survey released Wednesday by Pew Research Center, those are exactly the things the majority of Americans don’t want NASA to spend its time on.
From April to March, Pew researchers asked 2,541 Americans what they thought about the 60-year-old agency and which NASA projects they felt were the most important. Approximately 63 percent of respondents said that NASA’s highest priority should be “monitoring key parts of Earth’s climate system.” Next up, in order of perceived importance, were monitoring asteroids (which was close at 62 percent), conducting research to better understand space (47 percent), and developing technologies that could be adapted for other uses (41 percent).
Ranking at the bottom of the priority list was sending astronauts to Mars and to the Moon. Approximately 18 percent of respondents said getting humans on Mars was a top priority, while 13 percent said the same for putting people on the Moon.
These opinions are directly opposed to what Trump wants NASA to focus on. In December, Trump signed an order called “Space Policy Directive 1,” which ordered NASA to prioritize putting humans on the Moon with help from the private space sector. While it seems more like a prestige move than anything, the argument for going back to the Moon is that having a base there will help us make it even further into the solar system. The Moon, the Trump administration argues, is the gateway that will enable humans to explore Mars.
“The directive I am signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” Trump said in December. “It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the firs time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.”
According to this new Pew poll, Americans are just so-so about even the idea of humans going to the far reaches of space. When asked who should make up the crew if NASA sends expeditions into deep space, 58 percent said humans should be included, while a competitive 41 percent said “eh, send in the robots.”
Meanwhile, the strong public support for NASA’s role in monitoring Earth’s climate is not reflected by the Trump administration — not just because it has prioritized moon travel but because it has actively worked to cut Earth science out of the agency entirely. In 2017, five Earth science missions were cut from NASA’s 2018 fiscal budget, and this May, the Trump administration quietly killed NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, which measured Earth’s carbon dioxide and methane levels. Without it, it will be extremely difficult to measure greenhouse gas emissions, which we have to do if we ever rejoin the Paris climate agreement.
When it comes to the climate change side of Earth science, NASA has become very angsty, now that Trump is in charge.
“They [NASA] have stopped promoting or emphasizing climate science communication, they have minimized it,” Laura Tenenbaum, a former NASA science communicator, told The Guardian in May. “People inside the agency are concerned that Trump will cut climate science funding. There is a fear and an anxiety there and the outcome has been chaos.”
If space policy influenced votes, however, maybe Trump would be singing a different space tune. What people want is for NASA to help us understand how to not muck up life on Earth before we go do the same to other planets.
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