Most of us (understandably) associate NASA with rockets and space exploration, but the space agency also keeps an eye on our home planet. And it turns out the public is more supportive of NASA’s efforts to monitor Earth’s ever-warming climate than you might expect.
A new Pew survey released on Wednesday looked at how Americans view their beloved space agency six decades after its founding. The main takeaways are about what you’d expect: Most Americans think the U.S. should keep leading the world in space exploration, and most view the International Space Station (which the Trump administration is interested in turning over to the private sector) as a good investment.
But when asked to rate the importance of nine key space agency priorities, the survey gets more interesting. Sixty three percent of the 2,500 Americans polled said monitoring the Earth’s climate system should be a top priority for NASA, which gives this mission...drumroll...higher public priority than any other. In comparison, a scant 13 percent of Americans think going back to the Moon (a much-touted goal of the Trump administration) should be NASA’s top priority, and just 18 percent said getting boots on Mars (a key Obama-era aspiration) ought to be.
Climate monitoring even beat out monitoring dangerous asteroids as a top priority, albeit by a single percentage point. That’s right: NASA’s work on the notoriously hard-to-care-about subject of climate science is on par with asteroids in the public eye, despite the seemingly endless torrent of viral content broadcasting our impending doom from outer space
Partisan politics do play a role here. Only 44 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said monitoring Earth’s climate system should be NASA’s top priority (which ain’t nothing) compared with 78 percent of Democrats. This is no surprise: There’s a longstanding and deeply partisan divide on climate, and it shapes our thinking on just about everything related to it (well, except maybe clean energy).
Still, in an era where spewing climate denial is basically toeing party line for Republicans, the findings should offer some hope.
Of all the government agencies that deal with climate change, NASA has proven itself surprisingly resistant to Trumpian interference. Despite the White House’s repeated attempts to slash the agency’s Earth science budget, that budget has remained flat. A recent attempt to kill a small but critical greenhouse gas monitoring program was reversed by Congress after news outlets reported on it. Even NASA’s new administrator, who had some objectively whacky beliefs on climate before assuming the role, has recently changed his tune.
NASA’s fleet of Earth monitoring satellites play an essential role in helping scientists monitor and understand the impacts of human-caused climate change, from vanishing glaciers to rising sea levels. It’s heartening that Americans seem to recognize this matters more than blasting off to Mars, despite how tempting the latter sounds.