Americans Think Climate Change Should Be NASA's Top Priority, Not Sending Astronauts to Mars

Astronaut Jack Schmitt takes a photo of Earth from the Moon's surface during humanity's last trip there. According to respondents, NASA should watch Earth's climate and keep an eye on asteroids that could theoretically slam into the planet. NASA

We chose to go the Moon because it was hard, but it turns out difficulty might not be a compelling enough argument to sway Americans these days.

That's according to a new poll released by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan polling group that studies a range of fields including science and U.S. government policy. Perhaps the most interesting set of results came when the researchers asked how NASA should prioritize the suite of tasks the agency oversees.

The top two priorities out of the list given were to watch Earth's climate and to keep an eye on asteroids that could theoretically slam into the planet. Each of those tasks was ranked as a top priority by almost two-thirds of the survey respondents, with another quarter considering it an important but somewhat lower priority.

Read more: Should We Colonize Space? Some People Argue We Need to Decolonize It Instead

A handful of other tasks also drew fairly strong support from the respondents. Those include answering basic science questions about space, creating new technologies, studying how humans are affected physically by traveling in space, looking for natural resources that could be brought to Earth and looking for extraterrestrial life.

Out of the options the researchers provided (of course, NASA can and does many other things as well), sending astronauts to Mars and the Moon fared worst. Only one in between five and 10 respondents thought each of those goals should be a top priority, and almost half of all respondents thought it was still important.

But more than a third of respondents thought sending astronauts to Mars wasn't important or shouldn't be done by NASA, and almost half said the same about sending astronauts to the Moon. And overall, only about six in 10 respondents said sending humans into space is essential at all; the rest thought we could get the job done with robots alone.

NASA's existence itself was even questioned by some of the respondents, about a third of whom said that private companies would be able to carry the burden of space exploration. It's unclear whether they realize that a significant portion of commercial space work is financed by NASA's willingness to be their customer.

Some respondents also raised concerns that commercial space companies would prioritize profit over safety issues, managing space junk and doing basic research—issues on which NASA has a generally strong track record.