[Photograph of Neil Fraser]

Neil Fraser

For the past nine years I've been a software engineer at Google in California.  In my spare time I've created a mélange of open-source software.  I've also built some rather unusual hardware.  On rare occasions I've even been known to write something interesting.

Spaceflight Survey Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Before reading this post, try to honestly answer this one-question survey. Your answer is not being recorded, but it will help provide context.

Which of these countries can currently launch people into space?

Check all answers that apply

The correct answer is Russia (there is a Soyuz in orbit right now) and China (the next Shenzhou launches to China's new space station next month). The USA lost its ability to launch people into space five years ago when all the Space Shuttles were scrapped. No other country has ever launched a person into space. Though of course anyone with enough cash can go to Russia and buy a ticket -- which is what NASA currently does.

I was interested to know how much awareness there was of this state of affairs. So I spent $10 and commissioned a survey using Google Consumer Surveys. After a couple of days the results came back. The data is pretty noisy, but it turns out that only 2% of Americans are aware that Russia can launch people but the US cannot (a difference smaller than the margin of error). And most Americans don't know that China has two space stations.

An interesting conclusion is that when NASA finally regains the ability to fly astronauts, 98% of Americans won't notice the difference. The flip side is that NASA could cease all operations tomorrow and 98% of taxpayers would be completely unaware. This explains why Hillary Clinton doesn't mention space once in her list of policies. Likewise, Donald Trump also doesn't mention space once is his list of policies.

This isn't really surprising to anyone who follows spaceflight. An earlier survey indicated that Americans think than NASA consumes 24% of the US budget (the reality is 0.5%). And the politicians in charge aren't much better with a member of the House Science Committee asking the NASA administrator if the Mars Pathfinder rover had been able to see the flag Neil Armstrong had planted.

When SpaceX lands people on Mars in the next decade, almost nobody will care. It kind of makes one want to leave this planet.


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