Americans have made many other "giant leaps for mankind" since setting foot on the moon in 1969, but NASA's most recent technological miracle -- successfully launching two golf cart-sized rovers, directing them across millions of miles of space, and landing them on Mars within a few feet of the targeted areas -- still impresses many Americans.
A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll*, conducted Jan. 29-Feb. 1, asked Americans whether landing two robotic explorers on Mars was "a major achievement, a minor achievement, or not an achievement at all." Overall, 70% of Americans said it was a major achievement, one in five Americans (20%) declared it only a minor achievement, and 9% feel that the landings were not an achievement at all.
The Cost of Boldly Going
Gallup show that Americans tend to view space travel and exploration as worthwhile at a general level, but support tends to drop when respondents are reminded about the costs of such programs. For example, in December 2003, 53% of Americans said they would favor "a new U.S. space program to send astronauts to the moon," while 45% were opposed. But when the question was put a different way and they were asked if they would favor "the U.S. government spending billions of dollars to send astronauts to the moon," only 31% said yes and 67% said no.
The perceived value of the space program may be tied to perceptions of the country's economic fortunes. When asked in 1999, during an economic boom, if the space program had brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs, 55% of Americans said yes. Five years earlier, when America was just climbing out of a recession, the country was evenly split on the question, with 46% saying the space program had brought enough benefits to justify the costs, and 46% saying that it had not.
Over the years, many Americans have questioned large allocations of government funds to conduct experiments in space when there are so many domestic issues that could use the money. This fact has not been lost on the 2004 Democratic candidates. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, in a speech delivered in Wisconsin on Feb. 14, drew this line of demarcation: "He (President Bush) wants money for a mission to Mars, we want money for middle schools in Milwaukee."
The debate assuredly will rage on, throughout the 2004 election and beyond. Today, the Mars rovers continue their exploration of the Red Planet, guided by men and women who are millions of miles away from the interplanetary activities they oversee. The images they bring us from Mars couldn't be any clearer, but the question of how much priority should be placed on such missions remains a bit fuzzy.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 469 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 532 national adults in the Form B half-sample. For results based on this sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.