Scientists Surveyed People About Space. The Comments Are Out of This World.

A poll of more than 1,500 participants reveals optimism about aliens, concerns about orbital debris, and “Uranus.”
A poll of more than 1,500 participants reveals optimism about aliens, concerns about orbital debris, and “Uranus.”
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ABSTRACT breaks down mind-bending scientific research, future tech, new discoveries, and major breakthroughs.

The history of space exploration has never been dull, but we happen to be living through an especially eventful era of dazzling discoveries, ambitious missions, and emerging challenges.

To get a sense of how people feel about this multifaceted spacescape, Motherboard is exclusively publishing the results of a wide-ranging poll of the American public, conducted by a team at the Outer Space Institute, a transdisciplinary global network of space experts, and the Angus Reid Forum USA, an online public opinion community. 

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The poll, which is available to view in full at this link, queried more than 1,500 respondents about topics such as aliens, orbital debris, the United States Space Force, and human missions to the Moon and Mars. The team also invited participants to provide feedback, in their own words, on the poll, with verbatim responses that ranged in tone from wistful to conspiratorial to zany (one person, for instance, offered this simple yet incisive comment: “Uranus”).

The poll was conducted through an online opinion panel and was designed to be as statistically representative of the American public as possible in terms of demographics, geography, and even political affiliation. The end results offer an intriguing snapshot of public attitudes about space from the most influential spacefaring nation on Earth.

“U.S. public opinion really matters in space because the United States really matters in space,” said Michael Byers, a professor and Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in a call with team members Aaron Boley, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in planetary astronomy at UBC, and Gregor Sharp, senior manager of panel research and outreach at the Angus Reid Forum. (Byers and Boley also serve as co-directors of the Outer Space Institute).

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As for why Canadian researchers conducted the poll, it’s because “what [U.S. decision-makers] decide matters for everyone,” added Byers.

On top of that, “it's just super-interesting research that hasn't been done before,” noted Sharp. 

To that point, the poll revealed overwhelming consensus on a few issues. A whopping 81 percent of participants agreed that “outer space should belong to everyone—no one country should be able to claim control over it,” with 49 percent indicating they strongly agreed with that statement. The value of fundamental science, such as astronomy, was likewise broadly acknowledged, with 72 percent of respondents agreeing that it is important and deserves government funding (30 percent strongly agreed).

The participants also expressed high levels of optimism about the existence of alien life, as well as the odds that humans will one day encounter it. Seventy-one percent agreed it is likely that there is other intelligent life beyond Earth in our galaxy, the Milky Way, with 40 percent strongly agreeing with that statement. 

Meanwhile, 75 percent said it is likely that we will detect microorganisms beyond Earth in our solar system (49 percent said “very likely”) while 77 percent said it is likely that we will detect microorganisms elsewhere in our galaxy (52 percent said “very likely”).  

“The broad recognition of the possibility of life in the solar system has implications for how we conduct space exploration,” said Boley, who noted that it also underscores the need for planetary protection measures designed to prevent cross-contamination between Earth and other worlds.

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“The wide public recognition that this is something that is a real possibility is, I think, an important component of this poll,” Boley added.

Byers said that some of the results were “extremely helpful” to the Outer Space Institute’s advocacy efforts, which include a push to ban anti-satellite (ASAT) tests. These tests destroy satellites and create swarms of orbital debris, which is outer space junk made up of defunct or broken spacecraft parts. 

The poll revealed strong opposition to ASAT tests and high levels of concern about orbital debris. Seventy-two percent agreed that there should be an international ban on conducting tests that create orbital debris, and 69 percent agreed that countries that create more orbital debris should be sanctioned.  

These results show that “the U.S. government would have public support to add its weight to the push for a test ban treaty,” Byers said.

The poll also showed that the American public is wary of some commercial activities in space, and generally has nuanced opinions about the private space sector. Sixty-nine percent said there should be limits on the number of satellites that companies can launch, indicating awareness about megaconstellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, that could add tens of thousands of satellites to orbit this decade. In addition, 54 percent of respondents said that companies should not be able to profit from resources extracted off of the planet, with 29 percent saying they should be able to profit and 17 percent saying they were unsure about this issue.

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For the most part, the poll did not show a huge difference in opinion according to political affiliation. However, America’s notoriously polarized politics did manage to infect one topic: the United States Space Force. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants who supported Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election were far more likely to have favorable views of this military agency, which was previously known as U.S. Air Force Space Command before Trump rebranded it. Seventy percent of those who voted for Trump in the last election agreed that the Space Force is essential for protecting American interests in outer space, compared to 33 percent of respondents who voted for Biden in 2020, and 41 percent of people who did not vote in the 2020 election.

There were other revealing nuggets lodged in the demographic details of the responses. Women were more likely than men to say they were unsure of their opinion on the presented issues, which is a gender-based trend that turns up in polls on many subjects. Sharp also pointed out that African-Americans were generally more skeptical of extravagant space missions, which may reflect, in part, the recognition of longstanding institutional racism within spaceflight, perhaps typified by the 1970 song “Whitey on the Moon” by Gil Scott-Heron.

Some respondents provided written feedback to the poll in a section the team called “Verbatims.” Sharp warned that these comments should not be viewed as representative of the American public, because they express the viewpoints of only a few individuals.

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“To the extent that a ‘verbatim’ reflects data that we polled on, sometimes it's just a very good way to illustrate, in somebody else's words, how they think about a question that we may have abstracted or may have framed slightly differently,” Sharp explained. “There's the potential to link up verbatims to the overall results, but of course, proceed with caution because the way people infer or interpret things does vary.”

Indeed, an interesting subset of responses referenced conspiracy theories and misinformation, though it’s difficult to parse whether those comments are genuine beliefs or playful trolls, according to the team—follow-ups would be required to get a better sense of the real intent. Here are a few of those responses, some of which are edited for brevity but otherwise unaltered:

“Did we really go to the Moon?”

“I believe its all a lie . Conspiracy theory 101”

“NASA is the biggest frauds besides the government. We haven’t been to the moon, outer space or mars. The earth is flat, not a globe. The earth being round is a massive deception that upon research is uncovered.”

“I just hope we really are going in outer space and the moon.Gov sure is wating alot of money in space.”

“I still find it strange that NASA kinda pretty much ‘disappeared’ and then came back. Like what is really going on?”

“I think governments should be more truthful about all of it, like what's going on out there.

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Was there actually a moon landing?”

“Humans destroy everything. We can’t figure out to leave well enough alone. Let’s fix Earth (and I don’t even believe in the constructs of Global Warming 😂)”

“China just wants to get us to spend billions....they haven't even been to the Moon......neither have we.....but I would think that anyone wishing to go to Mars would want to go to the Moon first.”

Beyond mentions of conspiracies, the comments expose a kaleidoscopic array of interests and opinions about space. For instance, a significant chunk expressed concern that funding for space exploration would be better spent on social or environmental issues on Earth, while others were extremely enthusiastic about exploring outer space. Here are a few snippets of both perspectives.

“I love space, space exploration, the idea of intelligent life-- I love all of it but it amounts to absolutely nothing when we have some pretty catastrophic issues here that could be solved with that money (military budgets, too!)”

“We should be looking for other habitable planets like earth and trying to figure out how to travel quickly, like warp drive, instead of wasting so much time on Mars that is not habitable.”

“Don't colonize Mars. Focus on this planet first. So many more people will suffer needlessly if we just take our societal fuck-ups to another planet, especially since so many are already suffering here. We cannot handle it.”

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“There is no compelling reason to funnel billions of dollars into exploring space in any capacity when our planet will become unlivable within a few generations. Doing so is irresponsible and disgusting. Countries, companies, and individuals with wealth should spend their resources helping people and the earth, not getting into pissing wars over space.”

The emergence of private space companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, also generated a range of reactions. Some respondents welcomed the dawn of commercial spaceflight, while others voiced negative opinions of space sector billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Here are some of those comments:

“Billionaires are evil and have already destroyed this planet so they're looking for another to destroy, figures”

“I think the new private companies are doing much better than governments did to promote space exploration”

“I think we should spend our tax $$$ on people here on earth and stop wasting it on space projects. Let Elon Musk spend his billions on space projects if he wants to.”

“Limits on billionaire vanity project rocket launches- Jeff bezos should be taxed for every recreational rocket trip- perhaps to the scale of their greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Honestly I think if individual people are wealthy enough to go to space on their own, then however much money they spend getting there they should also have to donate to climate issues.”

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“I hate the fact that we are now exploiting celebrities to go into space. They don't belong there. Leave space travel to the seasoned astronauts.”

Another fascinating subsection of participants approached space issues through the lens of their religious beliefs:

“We should be exploring Earth's waters instead of wasting so much time , money and energy on chasing outer space fantasies. If God wanted us to have other worldly neighbors he would have created them and maybe he already has!?”

“My biblical beliefs are that it All belongs to God, if we are to represent Him well, there needs to be a balance of protecting the USA and meeting the needs of the whole working class of earthly humans. Not just the rich assholes.”

Naturally, many participants also offered their thoughts on UFOs and whether humans have already been contacted by alien life:

“I've seen UFO's/UAP's 4 times in my life that I know no man had anything to do with creating or piloting. So I think more pointed questions as to one's personal experiences of whether or not we've ever witnessed a UFO/UAP would be interesting for you to know about us.”

“I believe that there are outer space beings. Mainly Aliens. I have seen UFO's in different areas of America.”

Speaking of aliens, there was an interesting split in the comments between people who viewed extraterrestrial contact in a positive light and those that expressed concerns about the potential dangers of such an encounter:

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“We are not alone. We should have a global plan”

“Alien relations? We should decide as a planet how we interact with potentially intelligent alien life.”

“I think it is highly likely that we will find other intelligent life other than microorganisms out in our solar system! It is to vast and to large for us to be the only ones”

“If there is a race advanced enough to visit earth as often as we presume, how can we be foolish enough to think we could fight them in a battle.”

“Where are the smart aliens that can help us cure cancer and extend human life.”

Some of the responses absolutely demand further clarification. One person suggested that “people might be able to hear aliens when they smoke cannabis.” Another dared to address the question on everyone’s mind: “What about sex in zero gravity ??? Is getting pregnant there even possible ???” A participant also came up with a creative, if bittersweet, idea to immortalize humanity’s existence: “We should carve a carbon/carbon-dioxide molecule diagram into the moon in case humans die off because of climate change.”

My personal favorite is a bit inscrutable, but I read it as a succinct suggestion: “more planets.” Agreed.

Overall, the combination of the poll and the verbatim responses suggest that plenty of Americans are curious about all facets of space exploration—including completely unexpected ones—and that many have strong opinions about how it should be conducted now, and in the future. 

“It was very pleasing to see the relatively high level of understanding” of space issues, said Byers. “People are plugged in.”