April 23, 2014

Americans keen on space exploration, less so on paying for it

Apollo Moon Landing
Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. stands with U.S. flag on the lunar surface during the Apollo 12 mission, in 1969. Credit: NASA/Reuters/Corbis

Many Americans are optimistic about the future of space travel, but they don’t necessarily want to pay for it.

It’s been that way for some time, actually. A Harris survey taken in 1970 – less than a year after the first moon landing – showed that a majority (56%) thought the landing was not worth the money spent. A separate Harris poll, in 1971, however, found that 81% of Americans agreed with the statement that “nothing can equal seeing the astronauts land and walk on the moon as it happened live on TV.”

In fact, as we dug through data archives of the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey — which has been asking the public for 40 years about their views of space exploration and federal funding for it — we found that Americans are consistently more likely to say that the U.S. spends too much on space exploration than too little.  At no time has more than 22% of the public said that the U.S. spends too little on space exploration.

Still, that doesn’t mean Americans aren’t optimistic about exploring the possibilities of space. In a Pew Research Center/Smithsonian magazine survey released last week, a third of Americans said they believe there will be manned long-term colonies on other planets by the year 2064, despite evidence suggesting the difficulties of accomplishing that. Also, 63% of respondents to our 2010 survey said that they believe astronauts will have landed on Mars by 2050. More than half said that ordinary humans will be able to participate in space travel.

And it’s not as though Americans have a dim view of NASA, which overseas the government’s space program. About three quarters of Americans view NASA favorably – second only to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among federal agencies – according to a 2013 Pew Research survey.

Despite these positive opinions of the space program, just a two-in-ten Americans in the 2012 GSS survey said that the U.S. spends too little on space exploration. Four-in-ten believed the current spending was adequate, while three-in-ten believed further cuts should be made to the program. Instead, Americans strongly preferred increased spending on programs closer to home, including education (76%), public health (59%), and developing alternative energy sources (59%).

Currently, total funding for NASA accounts for 0.5% of the federal government’s budget. Of that funding, the space exploration program accounts for roughly 22% of NASA’s budget.

The disinclination to spend money on space exploration has already had an impact when it comes to ambitious projects like space colonization. In 2012, the NASA budget took a 20% hit to its planetary science programs, severely crippling NASA’s Mars exploration program. This year, the budget for Opportunity, NASA’s decade-old Mars rover, may be eliminated.

Update: A previous version of this blog post said no more than 20% of the public said the U.S. spends too little on space exploration. Some data sources have conflicting data and we have updated our post to reflect the higher figure, at 22%.

Topics: Emerging Technology Impacts, Federal Government, Science and Innovation

  1. is a web developer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Jeff2 years ago


  2. Kevin McGeary3 years ago

    ISS project has been a colossal waste of American resources, time and creative energy. The “make-work,” political boondoggle is overdue for retirement. The real science done by Nasa has not involved the need for human space travel.
    Except for the Hubble deployment, not only has the shuttle programme been costly and deadly, it has been boring.
    The most exciting future of Space exploration is unmanned probes which can do the job far more efficiently in deadly space. I look forward to the discovories by NewHorizons and JWT.
    “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
    -Richard Feinman

  3. Rob Holland3 years ago

    Do the survey’s ever ask how much the respondent believes NASA budget is?

    1. Michael3 years ago

      Most people think NASA is like 20% of the budget, that’s why.

      Tell them the average person spent $50 on NASA last year, and around $8000 on the top 3 items: DoD, Social Security and Medicare.

      NASA is a drop in the bucket (as is Education, at $300/year), but it *looks* expensive.

    2. Benjamin Wormald3 years ago

      We couldn’t find any polls that asked about perceptions of NASA’s budget specifically, but there is data that suggests Americans generally don’t really know how the federal budget breaks down. CNN/Opinion Research Corporation ran a survey on this in 2011: cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/04/01/amer….

      1. Jeremy3 years ago

        Indeed, I am writing a white paper for a masters policy course on the international fleet of earth observing satellites and all the data I’ve seen is that people generally overestimate the proportion of national budgets allocated to “big science.” Meanwhile, a great contingent valuation study in South Korea found on average, Koreans have a willingness to pay of $3.50 for satellites that can improve pollution forecasting, however the actual cost per person for the whole fleet of national observations is around $1 per person. Given the transferability of developing sensors and satellite tech for understanding our own planet and for mapping our solar system through orbiters it seems perhaps agencies could guise their cosmic ambitions through optimizing ever more sensitive and advanced earth observing technology to bring down the cost of extraterrestrial missions.

        1. Jeremy3 years ago

          The South Korean costs were approximate, here is a link to the contingent valuation study in the Journal Science Policy “Measuring the economic benefits of an environmental monitoring satellite project: The value of information approach”


      2. TEL3 years ago

        What i would like to see is a question that asks: How much should the government spend on space exploration (as a percent of the budget)?