Views on Space Exploration.

Consider the public’s views on space exploration. 

As NASA historian Roger Launius (2003) has noted, there has been and there continues to be a mismatch between, on the one hand, the public’s approval of NASA and the space program, and, on the other hand, the public’s willingness to support funding increases for space exploration. 

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Gallup polls from 1990 to 2007 revealed that an average of 57.6 percent of Americans thought that NASA was doing an excellent or good job; 28.5 percent thought NASA was doing only a fair job; 7.8 percent thought NASA was doing a poor job; and 6 percent had no opinion. 

According to the General Social Surveys (GSS) from 2008 to 2014, an average of 67.2 percent of Americans were either very or moderately interested in space exploration, while an average of 32.1 percent were not at all interested. 

Meanwhile, a different picture emerges when the public is asked specifically about funding for NASA. 

Focusing on the period between 2006 and 2010, William Bainbridge finds evidence of the influence of scientific literacy and religion on beliefs about space funding. 

Among the 52.7 percent of GSS respondents who correctly identified that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” 18.2 percent said there is too little space funding; meanwhile, only 10.7 percent of those denying this claim thought there is too little funding for space.

Similarly, among the 50.4 percent who said that “the universe began with a huge explosion,” 20.2 percent said there is too little space funding; of those denying this claim, only 9 percent said there is too little space funding.

Scientific literacy may be the primary culprit here, since other questions seemingly unrelated to any potential conflict between science and religion revealed similar differences in attitudes toward space. 

For instance, of those correctly denying that lasers work by focusing sound waves, 20.1 percent said there is too little space funding; meanwhile, of those incorrectly agreeing that lasers work by focusing sound waves, only 9.8 percent said there is too little funding for space.

Nevertheless, Bainbridge does find data that bear directly on the influence of religion, and in particular, on the strength of one’s religious convictions. 

Of those who “know God really exists” and who have no doubts about it, only 11.7 percent said there is too little funding. 

Compare this with 22.4 percent of atheists and 24.9 percent of agnostics. 

A similar trend emerges when examining frequency of attendance of religious services. 

Of those who claim they attend religious services more than once per week, just 7 percent feel there is too little room financing; compare this with 16.9 percent of those who never attend religious services. 

 According to Joshua Ambrosius’ examination of data from the GSS and from many other polls, we must also be aware of the impact of religious tradition. 

Just as religious tradition seems to impact one’s beliefs on evolution, so too does it seem “to affect space knowledge, policy support, and the overall advantages of space exploration”.

As with evolution, Evangelical Christians stand out: Evangelicals are indeed less informed (even if reluctant to acknowledge their knowledge), interested, and supportive of space/​ space policy than the public as a whole and/​or other religious traditions. 

This is a concern for the future of space exploration since Evangelicals make up more than one-​quarter of the U.S. population and therefore a substantial proportion of prospective space-​minded constituencies. 

Meanwhile, individuals identifying as Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist showed higher than average interests in space. 

Thus, Evangelicals may have an outsized effect on the connection between religiosity and pessimism about space, because Evangelicals are more likely than are other religious groups to attend services once a week or more, to think that scripture is the actual word of God, etc. 

It is plausible, then, that the public largely approves of astrobiology and the scientific search for life, but that like space exploration more generally this support is moderated by scientific literacy, religiosity, and religious tradition, and it does not extend to willingness to provide increased funding for astrobiology projects.

~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan 

You may also want to read more about Space Exploration, Space Missions and Systems here.

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