While policymakers seem perplexed over the nation's ambitions in human space exploration, a recent sounding of public sentiment suggests there is broad support for Mars as a destination but for reasons somewhat apart from those most often mentioned, such as ensuring U.S. leadership, high-tech spin-offs and creating a catalyst for youthful scientific literacy.
Americans are most intent on dispatching humans to Mars to gain a greater science-based understanding of the planet and to search for signs of life, according to the Mars Generation survey conducted Feb. 4-6.
More than 50% believe the objectives justify a human presence. Despite current economic ills, three in four Americans believe it is worth doubling NASA's budget to achieve them—once they were told the agency receives $17.7 billion annually, according to a “snapshot” of survey results. Explore Mars and Boeing sponsored the poll in a run-up to the Humans to Mars Summit, hosted by the George Washington University Space Policy Institute in early May.
“We certainly did not expect these sorts of numbers,” said an elated Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, the Massachusetts pro-exploration non-profit and summit co-sponsor. “This is a wake-up call to our leaders that Americans are still explorers.”
Phillips & Co. of Austin, Texas, conducted the email survey from a stratified random sample of 1,101 respondents 18 and older, selected to achieve a 95% confidence level with a plus/minus 3% error margin.
Only after greater awareness and the search for life does global leadership emerge as a justification in the survey, followed by a youthful boost to science, technology, engineering and math studies; permanent settlement of Mars; domestic job stimulus, and constructive international cooperation. Most do not care whether the U.S. leads a Mars exploration initiative as long as it participates. The majority believe a public/commercial partnership will be most effective in achieving the goal, as well as in sharing the spin-offs and reining in costs.
A March 4 release of the full report will offer a breakdown of the findings by region, level of education, income and ethnicity. However, seven in 10 Americans—men and women equally and African-Americans as much as whites—expressed confidence that humans are destined to walk on Mars by 2033, according to the initial results.