- INSIDER polled more than 1,000 people living in the US about the funding and direction of NASA.
- Most respondents said returning to the moon should be a priority for the US space agency.
- But a majority think NASA’s time, energy, and resources are best spent on Mars exploration.
- About 85% of seem to think NASA’s annual budget should be increased as a percentage of the federal budget.
- Yet more than 60% don’t appear to know that the agency receives about 0.5% of all federal dollars yearly.
Can you guess what share of the US federal budget goes to NASA?
If you’re not sure, you’re not alone.
For roughly the past decade, NASA has received about 0.5% of all planned federal spending. In the 2018 fiscal year, that translates to about $US20.7 billion.
But according to a recent poll by INSIDER, a sister publication of Business Insider, fewer than two in five US residents could estimate the space agency’s funding level within 1 percentage point.
The poll results, which came from 1,037 people on SurveyMonkey Audience, suggest that a majority of Americans don’t know what slice of the taxpayer-dollar pie NASA gets each year.
There was also a notable difference between the share of the budget respondents think the agency receives versus what they think it should get. Based on respondents’ preferences, a vast majority would give NASA a raise – even when providing numbers they think would cut the agency’s budget.
Here’s a look at what we learned from the public opinion data, and how the future of NASA might be affected if Americans had a direct say in the matter.
Most Americans think NASA should return to the moon, but they disagree about what that lunar exploration should look like.
About 43% of the survey respondents think NASA shouldn’t make going back to the moon a priority; the other 57% would be happy to know that is precisely what the space agency plans to do in the coming years.
Yet those who want NASA to return to the moon are split on how, exactly, the agency should go about that work. Some two-thirds want human exploration to be the focus, while the remaining third says robots should take center stage.
NASA’s plan is to book rides for its lunar science experiments on commercial moon landers.
The agency is also planning to create a “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway,” a crewed space station to be built in the vicinity of the moon during the 2020s. But first the agency must conquer compounding delays and cost overruns with its new program to build a mega-rocket called Space Launch System.
Mars exploration seems to be most important to the public, though.
Though many survey respondents want NASA to go back to the moon, less than 21% think it’s a top priority for the agency. Instead, about 57% of people surveyed want Mars to be NASA’s main focus.
A little more than half of the pro-Mars respondents want that exploration to be robotic (like NASA’s Mars InSight lander). A little less than half want to see humans visit the red planet (as does Elon Musk).
Between one-fifth and one-quarter of people want the space agency go somewhere else entirely.
The poll didn’t ask for specifics, but those alternative destinations might include ice-covered moons like Europa at Jupiter or Enceladus at Saturn – both of which may hide subsurface oceans, and perhaps even alien life. Or maybe they’d like NASA to revisit Ceres (an icy dwarf planet in the asteroid belt), land a new spacecraft on Venus, or invest in an ambitious interstellar mission like Breakthrough Starshot.
Americans wildly overestimate how much money NASA gets each year.
Ask a US resident to estimate what share of federal funding their space agency gets, and you’ll get some widely varied answers.
In fact, some answers to this question were so wild that the top 5% and bottom 5% of responses have been removed (some were “0%” and others were “100%”) to ensure the chart here shows a more representative result.
Still, less than two-fifths of the US-based respondents guessed within 1 percentage point of the correct portion. In reality, the agency’s fiscal year 2018 budget was 0.5% of all annual federal spending. That translates to about $US20.736 billion of some $US4.173 trillion total.
The average respondent, however, thinks NASA gets about 6.4% of all federal dollars. If that were true for 2018, NASA would have $US267 billion to work with – about 13 times as much as it actually gets.
When asked how much NASA should get, respondents suggested an even larger share: 7.5% of the federal budget, on average. That’s about $US313 billion, or more than 15 times the current level.
That preferred funding level is far more than NASA got during the peak of the Apollo moon-landing program. During that time (when the agency had its biggest budget share ever) NASA got nearly 4.5% of the federal budget.
If NASA really got 7.5% of the current national budget, that would be enough to build two football-field-size International Space Stations in a single year. (The one we have now took about two decades.) One year’s worth of this funding might also be enough to send a crewed mission to Mars, according to one government estimate.
Even people who think NASA’s budget should get cut would actually increase funding.
A little more than half of respondents would vote to raise NASA’s budget, while more than one-quarter indicted they want to keep it at current levels. The rest of the respondents said they want NASA to get less funding.
But it turns out that if you compare everyone’s stated preferences to NASA’s actual funding level, 85% of people still suggest a higher share than NASA’s current 0.5%. That means many of the people who thought they wanted to cut NASA’s budget or keep it the same would actually give the agency a raise.
The reality of government spending is complex and contentious.
The chart above, a tree map, shows the federal government’s 2018 fiscal year budget based on numbers provided by The Balance.
Each box represents the relative size of that part of the budget. As you can see, Social Security, other mandatory spending, Department of Defence (DoD), Medicare, and Medicaid make up about three-quarters of the map.
NASA is the small red box at the bottom right. In terms of all main spending programs, including discretionary and mandatory, NASA is second to last. (The smallest box is the National Nuclear Security Administration.)
If you’re wondering what NASA might do with a budget as big as the DoD’s, here are some ideas.
SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn’t try to weight its sample based on race or income. Total 1,037 respondents polled December 1-2, 2018, margin of error plus or minus 3.11 percentage points with 95% confidence level.
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