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By the numbers: What Americans think NASA should focus on

Reproduced from a Pew Research Center report; Note: Survey conducted March 27 to April 9, 2018. The "lower priority" ranking means it was not the top priority but still important. Respondents who did not answer are not shown; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans rank monitoring Earth's climate and detecting asteroids and other objects that could hit the planet as top priorities for NASA, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Lowest on the list: returning astronauts to the Moon — a top priority for the White House.

For the future: Half of the 2,541 Americans surveyed think people will be routinely traveling to space as tourists in the next 50 years. But 58% of respondents said they wouldn't want to orbit Earth.

"We were struck by the finding about public priorities for NASAs mission," says Pew's Cary Funk. "Sending astronauts into space is one of the most visible of the U.S. space programs over time."

A congressional spending deal reached in March put $4.8 billion toward developing technologies to send humans to the Moon and Mars whereas less than one percent of the agency's budget goes toward planetary defense. The same bill directed $1.9 billion toward Earth science activities, including climate research.

"As the Pew study states, a majority of Americans believe it’s important to send astronauts to Mars and to the moon and it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be a world leader in space exploration. That being said, NASA is committed to maintaining a balanced portfolio that includes both earth science and space exploration," NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said in a statement.

NASA and commercial space companies:

  • 65% of respondents say NASA should still play a primary role in space exploration.
  • Yes, but: One-third of people surveyed by Pew say private companies can advance space exploration. That suggests the relationship between NASA and the commercial space industry is being poorly communicated, says Casey Dreier, The Planetary Society's director of space policy.
"The majority of private companies rely on NASA as a customer and, if not, aspire to. NASA right now is playing a critical role in creating a marketplace for commercial space companies."
— Casey Dreier, The Planetary Society

What they're skeptical about:

  • While Americans tend to be relatively confident in the ability of private space companies to build and launch rockets and spacecraft, the public is closely divided about whether the industry will minimize human-made space debris.
  • 51% of Americans have little or no confidence companies will address the increasing problem of debris from human activities in space.
  • Half of Americans Pew surveyed think people will be routinely traveling to space as tourists in the next 50 years. That's less than said they expected embryos to be routinely edited (52%) but more than said people will eat mostly lab-grown meat (41%).
  • Overall, 58% of Americans responded that they wouldn't want to orbit Earth. Among millennials, 63% say they're "definitely or probably" interested in traveling to space v. 39% of Gen Xers and 27% of Baby Boomers, according to the report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from NASA and to clarify the definition of a mission's "lower priority" ranking by respondents.