Space Exploration: NASA’s Impact on American Identity

After Sputnik, space exploration activities were consolidated under the new government agency called NASA. The resulting program is now in the midst of a renaissance brought on by private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.

But Americans are divided on the priorities for NASA’s efforts. A May 2019 AP-NORC survey found that monitoring asteroids and other threats to Earth ranked as the most important goal, while projects such as returning to the Moon or traveling to Mars were rated less highly.

The Space Shuttle Program

For a century, our nation has viewed space exploration as a way to demonstrate its technological prowess and political organizing capacity. The 1961 Kennedy memo advocating a manned race to the Moon was explicitly motivated by competition with the Soviet Union. While the Cold War ended in 1991, this mindset persisted. Since then, a number of polls have found that many Americans still place high importance on a successful national space program and believe the U.S. should continue to lead the world in space exploration.

In addition to its manned programs, NASA has launched a series of robotic spacecraft to explore the solar system. These probes have collected valuable samples from the surface of Mars and sent back stunning photos of our own planet and the galaxies beyond. As private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have risen to prominence, they have freed NASA from its dependence on Russian launch vehicles and helped reduce the cost of space travel.

Today, nearly half of Americans say they strongly agree the United States should continue to be a leader in space exploration. This strong support extends across gender, generation and education levels and is consistent with previous polling on the subject. The public also supports the continuation of the International Space Station, with majorities of every demographic group agreeing that it has been a good investment for the government.

When asked directly about whether the nation should prioritize returning astronauts to the Moon or going to Mars, however, American sentiment is split. A slim plurality favors the Moon, while a majority favors neither.

This ambivalence may reflect the fact that many Americans think it is important for the space program to be driven by more than just a desire for prestige. A more pragmatic reason for pursuing space travel may be that, as Sagan argued in his 1994 book A Pale Blue Dot, “every surviving civilization is obliged to become space-faring, not out of some romantic or adventurous zeal, but simply because it must if it is to survive.” While human astronauts are unlikely to resume journeys to the Moon and Mars anytime soon, robotic spacecraft can take their place.

The Apollo Program

The American space program reached its pinnacle with the Apollo missions of the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy proposed the program as a means of restoring US prestige in the wake of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight and the Bay of Pigs invasion. The project required huge investments of time and money. Its success would show the world that the United States was still a superpower capable of taking decisive military and technological action.

It was a high-risk, high-reward venture that required innovative thinking. The Apollo 1 disaster taught a lesson that innovation was a vital part of any successful mission in the new arena of human spaceflight, and it has been an ethos ingrained into NASA. It also demonstrated that overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges could be accomplished with determination and perseverance.

When the first Moon landing happened on July 20, 1969, it was an astonishing accomplishment that gave Americans a renewed sense of pride in their nation’s history and accomplishments. A decade after the first landing, a poll conducted by NBC/AP found that 41% of Americans thought the benefits of the space program outweighed its costs.

In order to reach the Moon, NASA had to perfect the launching, docking and refueling of large, complicated spacecrafts. The Mercury program, which ran from 1959 to 1963, and the Gemini program, which took two-person crews into orbit from 1962 to 1966, helped test many of the maneuvers and components needed for Apollo. The spacecraft for the lunar missions was a command module (CM), a service module and a Lunar Module, or LM. The LM was designed to take two astronauts on the lunar surface, support them while there and return them to the CSM in lunar orbit.

The Apollo 8 flight, which took Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders into low Earth orbit in December 1968, was the first to use the LM on a full lunar flyby. The Apollo 11 mission, which took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon’s surface in July 1969, was the climactic mission. It was during this mission that an LM oxygen tank exploded, forcing the astronauts to use the CM as a lifeboat and make a dramatic rescue.

The International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) was launched in 2000 and has been continuously occupied by humans since 2001. It is the world’s largest laboratory in low Earth orbit, and an international partnership of fourteen nations manages it today. Astronauts conduct research, travel from the ISS to perform maintenance, and occasionally venture outside of the station for spacewalks. The ISS is the only permanent human habitat in low Earth orbit, and it allows scientists to study how the body adapts to spaceflight.

The ISS has also allowed scientists to explore the planets beyond our solar system. For example, the Mars rover Perseverance recently discovered evidence of liquid water on Mars in 2021. Other robots have collected samples of the atmosphere and surface of Mars, studied its chemistry, and searched for signs of life.

Americans continue to express strong support for NASA’s manned missions to the Moon, Mars, and other locations in our solar system. But these objectives remain among the least popular when asked which NASA priorities should be pursued, according to our recent polling.

As a result, the Trump administration has placed greater emphasis on developing technologies that will allow American private companies to travel to space and develop their own independent capability for reusable rockets. Whether it is Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, a majority of Americans say they are very or somewhat confident that these private companies will eventually be able to carry out some or all of the tasks currently performed by NASA and other government agencies.

Across gender, generations and education levels, Americans show strong support for continuing the United States’ leadership in space exploration. Despite their differences on other issues, Republicans and Democrats are nearly equally likely to think that monitoring asteroids that could hit Earth should be one of NASA’s top priorities. They are also roughly equally likely to favor searching for raw materials and natural resources in outer space and a mission to return astronauts to the Moon or Mars. These views are consistent with our 1967 survey, which found that fewer than three-in-ten Americans thought that reaching the Moon or Mars should be the highest priority for NASA.

Space Colonies

Much like the American frontier, colonizing space is a goal that has long held a strong place in popular imagination. But unlike the West, where pioneers were given land by public authorities, private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have been instrumental in carrying out the colonization of outer space. They have also freed NASA from dependence on Russian rockets for travel to space, a constraint that has held up the agency’s progress since the retirement of the shuttle program in 2011.

Despite this success, many Americans still want government-led exploration, with only about a third of those polled saying that they believe private industry could “ensure that enough progress is made in space exploration.” This has led some to argue that the time has come to transition to an entirely privately funded space program, a view that is supported by the founders of both SpaceX and Blue Origin.

But this is far from a done deal, and most advocates for space colonization have not abandoned the hope of leveraging public funding. In fact, they have argued that it is essential. Their argument is that if humans are to survive beyond Earth, large colonies need to be established, which would be less likely to be destroyed by natural or man-made disasters.

These colonies can be located on a physical body, such as a planet, dwarf planet, or asteroid; on a natural satellite, such as the Moon or Mars; or on an artificial satellite, such as the International Space Station or Mir. Each type of colony has its own unique challenges.

For example, space stations and colonies need to be equipped for production and research, as well as living quarters. They need to have facilities that can produce fuel and water, and they should be designed with the ability to recycle waste. They must be able to communicate with Earth and other space explorers, and they should include telescopes. In addition, plans must be made to address the risk of an asteroid or meteor strike, which could destroy the facility and potentially kill any astronauts on board.

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