It is time for Trump to start selling space exploration

It is time for Trump to start selling space exploration

 The Pew Research organization recently released a poll that revealed Americans’ attitudes toward NASA, the emerging commercial space sector and space exploration in general. While the study contained a lot of interesting information, much of the media focused on the fact that more people believe that studying climate (63 percent) and mitigating against asteroid impacts (62 percent) should be a top priority than those who believe in going to Mars (18 percent) or back to the moon (13 percent.)

The top priority question elicited a number of hot takes in the media. Ars Technica proclaimed that “NASA’s priorities appear to be out of whack with what the public wants.” Mashable reported, “Americans aren't sold on the idea of sending astronauts back to the moon.” The Houston Chronicle, the hometown newspaper of NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center, added, “Americans don't love the thought of NASA going back to the moon, study shows.”


In fact, these headlines are, at best, misleading. While the Pew Poll does suggest that Americans are more enthusiastic about climate and asteroid studies, it does not indicate that they oppose sending astronauts to the moon and Mars. When one combines the answer “important but lower priority” with “top priority” then one finds that a healthy majority of Americans favor sending astronauts to Mars (64 percent) and going back to the moon (55 percent)


NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineSpaceX could disrupt NASA plan to return humans to the moon Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers press officials on 2020 election security | T-Mobile, Sprint execs defend merger before Congress | Officials charge alleged Iranian spy | Senate panel kicks off talks on data security bill NASA declares Mars rover Opportunity dead after 15 years MORE pointed out this fact in a tweet, “The Pew study states that a majority believe it’s important to send astronauts to Mars & to the moon & it's essential for the U.S. to be a world leader in space exploration. We are committed to maintaining a balanced portfolio that includes both earth science & space exploration.”

The more important fact that the Pew study revealed comes at the end. Just 7 percent of Americans have “heard a lot” about NASA and the activities of private space companies in the past year, while 20 percent have heard nothing of these subjects. The rest of Americans fall somewhere between these two extremes. The figures are particularly shocking considering the potential of both NASA and commercial space activities to change human civilization in the coming years.

Clearly, NASA has some work to do. A number of constituencies need to be convinced of the necessity of returning to the moon, including Congress, the public, and the media.

Bridenstine is doing his part, informed no doubt by his experience as a politician. He has an active Twitter feed and has made himself available to the media more frequently than many of his predecessors.

However, it should be noticed that the author of the return to the moon program, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE, has been low key about one of his signature initiatives.

Indeed, he eschewed the JFK example and did not announce the program with a high-profile speech, but instead a signing ceremony at the White House of the executive order for NASA to go back to the moon.

The return to the moon program is not under threat now. However, for astronauts to walk the lunar surface again seven or so years hence, the meme that Americans do not want it to happen cannot be allowed to take hold. Trump, therefore, needs to do a Kennedy and make the speech.

I can imagine Trump making his "back to the moon" speech later this year, say on a campaign swing through Texas. He could rent out Rice Stadium (and fill it as only he can) to ram home the Kennedy association. After Trump mentions his support for Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPoll shows competitive matchup if O’Rourke ran for Senate again Democrats veer left as Trump cements hold on Republicans O’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation MORE and various other local politicians, he can segue into his back-to-the-moon program. He should make sure that his arguments are comprehensive and uplifting. The event will be well covered by the media and will likely be carried live by the cable networks.

The idea of including space in a high-profile speech (and many others in the future) would be to keep the issue of space in the public consciousness and to incite discussion on social media on the subject. By doing so, the president will ensure that, this time, people will actually walk on the moon in the near future and that the third proposal to start American astronauts exploring deep space does not die on the vine as have the previous two.

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.”