(CN) – A new study finds a solid majority of Americans continue to believe in public investment in the space race, backing NASA and its central mission.
The Pew Research Center on Wednesday said 72 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States must continue to be a leader in space exploration, while 80 percent said the International Space Station was a good investment.
“Strong public support that the U.S. should continue to be at the vanguard of space exploration is widely shared across gender, educational and political groups,” said Pew researchers Cary Funk and Mark Strauss, authors of the study.
The study’s release arrives at a moment in history when the private sector has begun a foray into space exploration – whether it’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its mission to colonize Mars or Blue Origin, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, which is currently more focused on the moon.
Regardless of wealthy CEOs’ space ambitions – and their willingness to allocate significant resources to technological developments to help humans explore and develop of the solar system – 65 percent of Americans still believe NASA must play a vital role.
Comparatively, only 33 percent of those surveyed say private companies can be solely relied on to further mankind’s progression to the stars. While the old Sputnik-NASA dichotomy of the Cold War years has receded into the distant geopolitical past, a new set of international players in the space race – including China, Japan and India – have emerged, the study says.
This could partly account for the demographic uniformity in response to questions about the United States role in space.
“Each generational group, for example, expresses nearly equal levels of strong support for continued U.S. space leadership – from baby boomer and older generations (71 percent) who lived through the ‘Right Stuff’ era that pioneered space exploration to millennials (70 percent) who grew up during the space shuttle program,” Funk and Strauss say in the study.
The authors say that negligible generational difference holds true for other demographic categories, with only slight differences in opinion after accounting for age, gender, education and even political orientation.
However, politics does play a role, as Democrats and those who lean Democratic are more likely to say NASA will continue to play a major role in space even with the rise of private sector companies, with 70 percent backing NASA. Just 59 percent of Republicans, who envision a sturdy role for the publicly subsidized space program, say the same.
The privatization model favored by some Republican respondents is also being contemplated by federal officials, centering mostly on selling off certain NASA assets including the International Space Station.
Internal NASA memos show the Trump administration has contemplated turning the space station into a commercially run venture. Currently, the space station is partially resupplied by Dragon spacecraft developed by SpaceX, an emblem of how space exploration has slowly shifted from the public to the private sector.
This attitude has also shaped public views of NASA priorities. The race to the moon with Russia has some support, with only 55 percent of Americans surveyed saying that sending astronauts to the moon is important and 13 percent saying it should be top priority. Elon Musk’s dream of putting a person on Mars in the near future is important to about 63 percent of respondents, with 18 percent saying it should be at the top of the list for the space program.
The study compares the endorsement of these priorities with other missions that earn more support from respondents, including a close watch on the climate which 88 percent of respondents categorized as important or a top priority, and monitoring space for potentially disastrous asteroids, which 91 percent said was important or a top priority.
Americans were also more supportive of other NASA priorities, including scientific research to augment the basic understanding of the solar system and developing technologies that could have broad application.
While Republicans and Democrats generally agree about NASA’s priorities – 60 percent of both camps believe monitoring for asteroids should be a top priority – the two parties disagree on the importance of the agency’s climate monitoring.
Republicans are also less likely to back basic scientific research as a top or important priority.
The Pew study comes as the European Union hammers out its next long-term budget for the years 2021 through 2027 and vows to earmark nearly $19 billion to boost its leadership and presence in space. The European Commission said Wednesday it would advise spending the bulk of the money on the European Space Agency’s global and regional navigation satellite system Galileo, its environmental monitoring system Copernicus and the development of security components for items already in space.