Asteroids headed for Earth? Poll shows Americans are ill-informed about space

Asteroids headed for Earth? Poll shows Americans are ill-informed about space
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A new poll shows that more Americans think detecting asteroids headed for Earth is our top priority in space, rather than sending American astronauts to the moon and Mars. However, the real results of the poll would seem to be that Americans tend to be ill-informed about space.

The recent poll was conducted by the AP and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It asked how important it is for the U.S. space program to tackle a variety of issues, highlighting what Americans consider “very/extremely important.”

Among the respondents, 68 percent believe that monitoring asteroids, comets and other events in space is extremely or very important. Meanwhile, 27 percent believe the same for sending astronauts to Mars and just 23 percent believe the same for sending Americans back to the moon. Way at the bottom of the poll, 21 percent believe it is extremely or very important to establish a human presence on other planets and 19 percent believe the same for establishing a U.S. military presence in space.

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The poll does not reveal how many Americans moderately support activities such as going back to the moon, not to speak of actively opposing them.

Why do Americans overwhelmingly support asteroid detection but not so much human space exploration? The responses to the questions suggest a lack of information. This further suggests that NASA, its political supporters, the media and even popular culture are doing an inadequate job of delivering information to the public.

A number of movies and TV shows, including 1998’s “Deep Impact” and the more recent series “Salvation,” have depicted a world under threat of asteroid impact. However, NASA is already heavily involved in a program to detect Earth-approaching objects, determine their threat level, and plan for a possible disaster. The upcoming DART mission will test one method of diverting an asteroid from a collision course with Earth.

Detecting asteroids and comets and diverting them from Earth is an easy sell. People know, because of popular culture and media reports, that unless we do these things, we may go the way of the dinosaurs.

Selling space exploration, not to mention settling other worlds, is a little harder. The issue is more complicated than life or death, although doing these things is vital for the long-term survival of human civilization.

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The arguments that returning to the moon furthers science, can spark a commercial industrial revolution and can buttress America’s leadership in the world community, have not been adequately disseminated. NASA’s Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants A lot has changed since Apollo 11 — how will we experience the next moon landing? The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet MORE has done yeoman work selling the Artemis moon program, but he has generally done so in the context of going to Mars. But why do we want to send humans to Mars? The question needs answering in a clear to understand manner.

Clearly, the powers that be have more work to do, up to and including the president of the United States. After all, President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE signed an executive order sending NASA back to the moon. Trump did not help matters when he tweeted his complaint about the space agency talking too much about going back to the moon and not enough about going to Mars. The president needs to talk more about how his space policy will benefit the United States and human civilization.

The media should do a better job of objectively discussing space policy and the cost and benefits of space exploration and the settlement of other worlds. The Apollo 50th anniversary would be a great opportunity to bring such discussions closer to the top of the hour.

Finally, one should not underestimate the power of popular culture to move minds. Unfortunately, movies and TV shows depicting people exploring space are few and far between, with the notable exception of far future stories like “Star Trek,” which don’t have immediate relevance. Even the hit film “The Martian” did not include material on why we must go to Mars and return to the moon.

This oversight represents a great opportunity for Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Overnight Defense: US shoots down Iranian drone | Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia | Trump mulls Turkey sanctions | Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections MORE, who owns not only Blue Origin, but also a film and TV studio and a live streaming service. Bezos has ambitions to go to the moon and building space settlements. What better opportunity to sell these things than to produce shows about people doing those things? Then dreams of a space future can become closer to reality as Americans grow to understand its benefits.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”