Americans overwhelmingly believe NASA should be working on sending a man to Mars and are optimistic that humans will reach the planet sometime in the next two decades, according to a new poll released Monday.
The poll found that nearly 75 percent of Americans believe that humans will land on Mars by 2033, and more than half of Americans believe NASA should either "play a strong role" in helping a commercial company run the mission or should go there itself.
The poll was prefaced with information that NASA spending (about $18.4 billion in 2011) represents about half a percent of the overall federal budget. Poll respondents incorrectly estimated that NASA's budget represents about 2.5 percent of the total budget. Given that information, 75 percent of poll respondents said that NASA's funding should be increased to about 1 percent of the total federal budget in order to fund a Mars mission.
NASA has vowed to send humans into Mars' orbit in the 2030s using its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is currently in development. But private space explorers have set a more aggressive timeline. Last month, Mars One, a nonprofit organization set a goal of putting a permanent human colony on Mars by 2023.
Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, a nonprofit dedicated to sending humans to Mars, says the survey results suggest Americans are ready for a renewed dedication to exploring the solar system. Explore Mars and Boeing funded the survey, which was conducted by Phillips & Company, an independent polling organization.
"It's good to see the public support for this—I think there's been a lot of good Mars news with the landing of the Curiosity rover," he says.
Poll respondents said they believe money or political barriers, not motivational or technological shortfalls, will be the biggest barrier to a future Mars mission. Carberry says the fact that a Mars mission must be planned years in advance makes some politicians reticent to approve such a project.
"People like to get things done in shorter timelines," he says. "But we'll have to test hardware, perform intermediate missions [to the moon or an asteroid]. If we go too long without showing the end is in sight, it can be difficult to keep any program moving in Washington."
Carberry says there are still a ways to go from a technological standpoint, but the landing of the Curiosity rover, which weighs about a ton, was a good start, but that any human mission will need a much larger ship.
"When we're talking humans, it'll be a bigger mass because we'll have to land the habitat they'll live in, the supplies they'll have to use," he says. "But if we just wanted to return a sample using robots, we could probably do that by the end of the decade."
What future astronauts can expect: