Foust Forward | How much does the public care about returning to the moon?

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the July 29, 2019 issue.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum turned the National Mall in Washington into a unique theater.

A 17-minute show transformed the Washington Monument into the biggest of big screens, with images of the Saturn V and the Apollo spacecraft projected onto it, accompanied by an array of smaller screens on the Mall and an original soundtrack.

The unique show, performed three times each night July 19 and 20, attracted huge crowds. The museum estimated afterward that half a million people attended, a crowd estimate based on the density of people in pictures of the Mall. Those people were undeterred by the hot and humid conditions and the clogged traffic in downtown Washington.

Some in the space community might be tempted to see this as evidence of public support for space, particularly human space exploration. The crowds would appear to be a good omen for efforts by NASA to win additional funding for the Artemis program and its return to the moon. Other evidence, though, suggests otherwise.

In May, The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research continued a public opinion poll regarding spaceflight, tied to the Apollo 11 anniversary. There were some positive findings in the poll: 60% of Americans thought the space program’s benefits justified its costs, for example. In another question, 42% of Americans said they either somewhat or strongly support returning humans to the moon in five years, versus 20% who were opposed and 38% who had no opinion.

But that same poll also asked Americans to identify how important certain spaceflight activities were for the country. There, human spaceflight didn’t do so well: only 23% said sending astronauts back to the moon was important, versus 40% who said it was not important. Human missions to Mars fared little better, with 27% saying it was important and 38% saying it wasn’t. Topping the charts was robotic exploration, science and, interestingly enough, planetary defense, with 68% saying keeping an eye on potentially hazardous asteroids was important.

Human spaceflight also didn’t go over well in another poll, conducted by C-SPAN and Ipsos. Three-quarters of respondents said they were moderately or very interested in space exploration, and a similar fraction had favorable views of NASA. But when asked to pick the top two priorities for U.S. space exploration, only 18% picked a human mission to Mars and just 8% a human return to the moon. By contrast, 52% said Earth science using satellites was a top priority.

Asked about the poll results in a C-SPAN interview, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine accurately noted that Apollo did not have broad public support during the 1960s. “But ultimately, when it was achieved, that monumental, stunning achievement was not only popular when it was complete, but it’s popular 50 years after it was complete,” he said. “People love Apollo.”

People certainly do love Apollo, as the crowds on the National Mall demonstrated, but that post facto support doesn’t help sell the Artemis program 50 years later. Right now, most of the public hasn’t heard of Artemis: in the C-SPAN/Ipsos poll, only 10% said they were familiar with Artemis, compared to 23% for the proposed Space Force. That can explain the contradictory responses in AP/NORC poll where people support the idea in general of returning humans to the moon, but also don’t consider it as important as other activities.

If Artemis does continue, more people will probably become familiar with it, and take stronger and more coherent opinions about it. There’s an opportunity now for NASA and the space community to shape it. As in Apollo, that public support may not be critical to winning sustained funding for Artemis, although the political and geopolitical conditions today are very different from those in the 1960s.

But in any case, it’s better to have public support before the fact than afterward.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.