Sunday, space policy analyst Leonard David pointed to a new report by Explore Mars that highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities surrounding NASA’s Journey to Mars. While much of the report covered the technical challenges, the more interesting parts of the report suggested that political hurdles and public outreach are just as important. In a way, this portion of the report parallels the analysis of this author in “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?”
The report notes that public support for sending astronauts to Mars and space exploration, in general, is strong but tends to drop off unless a proper explanation of cost is included. A 2013 Mars Generation Survey reported that 75 percent of the American people believed that NASA’s budget should be double. That number dropped to 51 percent in a 2015 Monmouth University Poll with 45 percent supporting more money for deep space exploration such as humans to Mars. Why the drop-off?
“Did public support erode that much in just two years? The answer to this question is almost certainly no. As with the vast majority of polls, the answers can be largely swayed by the way the questions are asked as well as public perception of the topic and preconceived notions about the cost of space exploration. The Mars Generation Survey provided budgetary context for the participants – something that the Monmouth poll did not do. The Monmouth Poll implied that Mars exploration is expensive – without any additional explanation. When participants in the Mars Generation Survey were provided with the current NASA budget level, over seventy percent of poll participants supported Mars exploration.”
The clear implication is that the key to sustaining a program of deep space exploration is public education. The report has a number of recommendations along those lines.
“In the case of human missions to Mars, reality is the best ally for building strong and consistent public support. Fictional representations can help, but the space community needs to do a better job at translating excitement about movies into support for actual missions to Mars. Facts are the best ally for maintaining public support of a human exploration program to Mars.
“Dispel the $1 trillion myth: Human missions to Mars should only cost a fraction of this amount.
“Better story telling: NASA and the space community need to better explain a clear path to Mars and how current programs will advance that path.
“Strengthen Hollywood partnerships: NASA and the space community regularly collaborate with the entertainment industry, but these ties need to be strengthened to amplify the messaging for human missions to Mars. When a major film (such as The Martian) is released, the space community, Hollywood, and other players need to find ways to harness public interest in the film to build support and excitement about actual missions to Mars.”
Ironically, the “$1 trillion myth” was perpetrated by NASA in 1989 in the wake of President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative in its now infamous “90 Day Report,” more as a means of killing SEI rather than supporting it. The actual cost estimate of the Journey to Mars is still a work in progress, but the report is certainly correct that it is not anywhere near a trillion dollars.
NASA has certainly been proactive in taking advantage of public enthusiasm for the hit film “The Martian” which depicts a NASA astronaut marooned on Mars and his efforts to survive before being rescued. The success of the film also almost certainly means that Hollywood will attempt to replicate that success with more film and TV projects depicting adventures on the high frontier. Previous experience suggests that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in the entertainment business, nothing will be quite as good as the original. In any case, the recommendation recognizes the truism that politics follows culture.
The theory is that if enough people see space adventures on the big and small screens, they will want to see them in real life. Of course, NASA will not likely plan for a real Mars mission to be quite as exciting as the one depicted in “The Martian.”