Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

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

Many Americans think tax system needs to be overhauled

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%.