In January 2004, shortly after two unmanned rovers began transmitting photographs to Earth from the surface of Mars, President George W. Bush announced his administration's intention to rejuvenate the nation's space program. Bush's plan is to return American astronauts to the moon between 2015 and 2020, and to eventually send a manned space mission to Mars. In Bush's words, "With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration -- human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond."
If the United States succeeds in sending a manned mission to the moon, or even to Mars, in the next two decades, today's generation of teenagers may be part of those missions. Are American teens up to the challenge? The most recent Gallup Youth Survey* asked U.S. teens if -- given the chance -- they would like to visit the moon and/or Mars. Teens seem slightly more enthusiastic about the prospect of going to the moon than going to Mars.
A majority of teens, 59%, either "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" with the statement, "If given the chance, I would like to go to the moon someday." Forty percent of teens "strongly" or "somewhat" disagree. But when presented with a more lofty ambition -- "If given the chance, I would like to be the first person to go to Mars" -- teens are a bit more likely to be apprehensive. Only 48% agree, while 50% disagree.
Since Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, more women have taken part in space missions, and one has even commanded a space shuttle. However, the fact remains that most astronauts are men. This may explain why boys seem to be more eager than girls to go to the moon and Mars. Seventy-four percent of boys told Gallup they want to go to the moon someday, compared with 43% of girls. About two-thirds (64%) of boys would like to be the first person on Mars, as would less than a third (31%) of girls.
The 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, portrayed a 21st century in which space travel was commonplace. We're still a long way from that reality, but achieving it within our lifetimes is not outside the realm of possibility. And while many teens are willing to embrace a future that includes space travel, it appears that a significant proportion would be happy to live out their days with their feet solidly planted here on Earth.
*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 785 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Jan. 22 and March 9, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.