It has plenty of close contenders, but I can’t think of a more depressing statistic from the last week than one contained within this survey [PDF] on public perceptions of space travel, conducted by Monmouth University.
On the one hand, the poll was good news for space nuts: 56% of respondents think that the space program thus far has brought us “lasting benefits,” and that number is pretty much the same across Democrat, Republican and Independent lines. At least, in a time of utter political polarization, we can agree that our past escapades in space were a good thing.
A very slim 51% majority want to increase NASA funding. But that drops to 42% in favor when the public were asked if they want to send astronauts to the Moon, Mars or asteroids — suggesting we’re fine with sending probes, but less cool about sending people.
But here’s the truly depressing statistic: Only 28% of us say we would care to go to space personally, even if the trip was entirely paid for. Some 3% said it depends, a mere 1% didn’t know, leaving a full 69% who have not the slightest desire to slip the surly bonds of Earth’s gravity. Apparently we’d rather not trespass on “the high untrespassed sanctity of space” or touch the face of God, thanks.
Independents were slightly more adventurous than Democrats or Republicans, and men were rather more into the idea than women. But in general, even if Elon Musk or Richard Branson got down on bended knee and presented us with a ticket to the ISS, more than two-thirds of Americans would say no.
I know what you’re likely to say: most Americans don’t hold passports. They don’t even want to explore the surface of our pale blue dot, so why would they bother to look back at it from outside?
To which I have two answers. Firstly, more Americans have the ability — and presumably the desire — to travel abroad than ever before. In 2000, there were 48 million U.S. passports in circulation. That number had more than doubled by 2012, to 113 million. That’s 38% of all Americans now capable of globetrotting, or fully 10% more than would go to space.
And secondly, do you doubt that most of the other 62% would go down to the passport office in a hurry if they were offered a free round-the-world ticket?
But space is different, apparently. When it comes to space travel, we don’t have decades of safe, reliable air carrier service to go on. Instead, we have outsized memories of the Challenger disaster, the Columbia disaster, the SpaceShipTwo crash, and that time Sandra Bullock got tossed around in orbit.
Fear and risk are good enough reasons not to want the fame or immortality that would come with adding your name to the list of 536 human beings who have been into space, I guess.
During the Oscars this weekend, NASA sent what seemed like an exasperated tweet reacting to the fact that we’d rather go to the cineplex and see the fake space of Interstellar than feast our eyes on something like this:
— NASA (@NASA) February 23, 2015
At least the needle is moving in the right direction, somewhat. Before the Apollo 11 landing, Monmouth University says, the amount of Americans who wanted to go into space hovered at around 17% — though we don’t know if they were specifically offered a hypothetical free ticket to do so.
But hey, 10% of Americans have decided they want to go into space since 1969, so yay. Maybe the total will hit 33% if we ever decide to land on Mars.
This kind of statistic is especially galling for an immigrant like me, who still holds a rosy view of America’s pioneer spirit. Isn’t this the land of Lewis and Clark and painted wagons heading west? Of manifest destiny and cities that don’t know when to quit growing? Historically, America’s biggest problem has been too much desire for exploration and appropriation of new territory, not too little.
Maybe America just got old and comfortable. Maybe it would rather just keep sending robots to Mars to take selfies than go there ourselves, and laugh at the brave few who sign up for a still-hypothetical one-way mission to the Red Planet.
We certainly gave up the Space Shuttle rather easily, and few of us batted an eye when President Obama canceled President Bush’s planned return to the Moon. In 1957, the Sputnik launch alerted a whole nation that it was slipping behind the USSR; when China became the third country to independently send humans to space in 2003, and orbited the Moon in 2007, we yawned.
Did anyone really notice that India sent an orbiter to the Moon in 2008 and one to Mars in 2013? Do we care that in 2020, China plans to launch its own space station? Or that Russia has just announced its aim to hive off its modules from the International Space Station in 2024 and form an orbital world of its own?
As plans currently stand, Dutch nonprofit and reality show Mars One will reach the red planet before NASA does. (Mars One is aiming for a 2018 arrival, while the current American ETA on Mars is a rather lackadaisical “sometime in the mid-2030s.”)
Maybe we should just let these dynamic up-and-coming countries and international entrepreneurs take the lead. Let them plant boots and flags on Martian soil. Because as things stand, quite frankly, America couldn’t give a damn.