Space Shuttle Program a "Go" for Americans

by Frank Newport

Majority believes NASA is doing an excellent or good job

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The successful landing of the Space Shuttle Discovery on Tuesday has allowed NASA to begin to focus on next steps. The space shuttle program has been officially suspended until NASA figures out how to solve problems relating to the foam insulation that covers the shuttle, but NASA administrator Michael Griffin has said he would like to get the next space shuttle launched and back into space by the end of the year.

Although safety and technical aspects of the shuttle program are obviously the most important determinants of future launch plans, public opinion can also be an important part of the thinking about the program's future. Presidents since John F. Kennedy have used space travel as a way to rally Americans around a common cause and to give them a vision for something beyond themselves. If that vision is no longer part of the public's psyche, congressional willingness to appropriate money could dwindle away.

At this point, it appears that a large majority of Americans support the idea that the space shuttles should continue to fly. A Gallup Poll conducted in late June found that three-quarters of Americans felt the United States should continue the manned space shuttle program.

Do you feel the U.S. should -- or should not -- continue the manned space shuttle program?

Should
continue

Should not
continue

No opinion

2005 Jun 24-26

74%

21

5

A poll completed this past weekend (before the successful return of the shuttle to Edwards Air Force base in California early Tuesday morning) found that 83% of Americans are confident that NASA can make the space shuttle safe to fly on future missions.

How confident are you that NASA can make the space shuttle safe to fly on future missions -- very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident, or not at all confident?

Very
confident

Somewhat
confident

Not too
confident

Not at all
confident

No
opinion

2005 Aug 5-7

41%

42

13

3

1

A CBS News poll conducted July 29-Aug. 2 found 59% support for continuing the space shuttle program, "given the costs and risks involved in space exploration."

Interestingly, support for the continuation of the space shuttle program was highest in the immediate aftermath of the Challenger and Columbia disasters that occurred, respectively, in 1986 and 2003.

2003: In light of the space shuttle disaster yesterday in which the seven astronauts were killed do you feel the U.S. should or should not continue the manned space shuttle program?

1986: In light of the space shuttle disaster in January (1986) in which the seven astronauts were killed, do you feel the U.S. should or should not continue the manned space shuttle program?

Should
continue

Should not
continue

No
opinion

2003 Feb 2 ^

82%

15

3

1986 Mar 7-10

80%

17

3

^ Polls conducted entirely in one day, such as this one, are subject to additional error or bias not found in polls conducted over several days.

CBS News also found high support for the aforementioned question (75%) in a poll conducted in February 2003, after the Columbia disaster.

NASA's Image

Ratings for the job NASA is doing rose slightly in the weekend poll. Sixty percent of Americans now give NASA an excellent or good rating, slightly higher than the 53% positive rating the space agency received in late June.

How would you rate the job being done by NASA -- the U.S. space agency? Would you say it is doing an excellent, good, only fair, or poor job?

Excellent

Good

Only fair

Poor

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2005 Aug 5-7

16

44

29

8

3

2005 Jun 24-26

11

42

34

6

7

2003 Sep 8-10

12

38

36

10

4

1999 Dec 9-12

13

40

31

12

4

1999 Jul 13-4

20

44

20

5

11

1998 Nov 20-22

26

50

17

4

3

1998 Jan 30-Feb 1

21

46

21

4

8

1994 Jul 15-17

14

43

29

6

8

1993 Dec 17-19

18

43

30

7

2

1993 Sept 13-15

7

36

35

11

11

1991 May 2-5

16

48

24

6

6

1990 July 19-22

10

36

34

15

5

The lowest ratings NASA has received in recent years came in September 1993, when just 43% gave it an excellent or good rating. The highest rating came in November 1998 (76% excellent or good), after the successful space shuttle mission involving former astronaut John Glenn, then in his 70s.

What About the Costs?

Gallup Polls have also shown the perhaps not surprising finding that support for space exploration drops when Americans are reminded of its costs.

In May 1961, the month in which President John Kennedy made his dramatic announcement that the United States should focus on sending a man to the moon before the decade was finished, almost 6 out of 10 Americans said they opposed spending $40 billion to send a man to the moon.

It has been estimated that it would cost the United States $40 billion -- or an average of about $225 per person -- to send a man to the moon. Would you like to see this amount spent for this purpose, or not?

Yes

No

No
opinion

%

%

%

1961 May

33

58

9

Similarly, three separate Gallup Polls conducted in 1969, 1999, and June of this year have found majority opposition to the idea of setting aside money to land an astronaut on Mars.

There has been much discussion about attempting to land an astronaut on the planet Mars. How would you feel about such an attempt -- would you favor or oppose the United States setting aside money for such a project?

Favor

Oppose

No
opinion

%

%

%

2005 Jun 24-26

40

58

2

1999 Jul 13-14

43

54

3

1969 Jul 24-29

39

53

8

It is interesting to note that this question about manned space flight to Mars raised the hackles of NASA administrator Griffin when moderator Tim Russert asked him about it on NBC's "Meet the Press" on July 31. Griffin had this to say:

Well, when you poll and ask the question that way, you can get almost any answer you like. It's very close to those, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" questions. If I ask the question in a different way, I might get a very different answer. The way I would ask it is, "NASA will spend about 5% or less of the money which is spent on national defense each year for the next 20 years. What would you like to see done with that money. Given that we're going to spend that money on the American space program, what would you like to see done with it?" and then list various options. "Returning to the moon, eventually going to Mars, exploring the asteroids and other planets, or would you rather that the United States space program be confined to lower-Earth orbit as we have been for the last 30 years?" And I strongly suspect that if confronted with choices, if confronted with the knowledge that we're going to be spending money on space and confronted with choices about where we should spend that money, that those poll results would change dramatically.

Of course, Griffin is correct in stipulating that an alternatively worded question about sending humans to Mars would have elicited different responses. There is little doubt that the type of wording suggested by Griffin would have resulted in an increased level of support for the idea of going to Mars.

But the conclusion derivable from the basic question of funding for a manned trip to Mars still holds: When reminded that it will cost money, Americans' initial reaction to the idea of sending astronauts to Mars is fairly tepid. Griffin and others (including, perhaps, President Bush, if he picks up on his previously announced support for a Mars mission) have their work cut out for them as they seek to expand Americans' support for the idea in the months and years ahead.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 5-7, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Now, thinking for a moment about something else,

3. How would you rate the job being done by NASA -- the U.S. space agency? Would you say it is doing an excellent, good, only fair, or poor job?

Excellent

Good

Only fair

Poor

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2005 Aug 5-7

16

44

29

8

3

2005 Jun 24-26

11

42

34

6

7

2003 Sep 8-10

12

38

36

10

4

1999 Dec 9-12

13

40

31

12

4

1999 Jul 13-4

20

44

20

5

11

1998 Nov 20-22

26

50

17

4

3

1998 Jan 30-Feb 1

21

46

21

4

8

1994 Jul 15-17

14

43

29

6

8

1993 Dec 17-19

18

43

30

7

2

1993 Sept 13-15

7

36

35

11

11

1991 May 2-5

16

48

24

6

6

1990 July 19-22

10

36

34

15

5

4. How confident are you that the space shuttle that is currently in space will land safely -- very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident, or not at all confident?

Very
confident

Somewhat
confident

Not too
confident

Not at all
confident

No
opinion

2005 Aug 5-7

36%

46

14

2

2

5. How confident are you that NASA can make the space shuttle safe to fly on future missions -- very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident, or not at all confident?

Very
confident

Somewhat
confident

Not too
confident

Not at all
confident

No
opinion

2005 Aug 5-7

41%

42

13

3

1

7. Do you feel the U.S. should -- or should not -- continue the manned space shuttle program?

Should
continue

Should not
continue

No
opinion

2005 Jun 24-26

74%

21

5

TRENDS FOR COMPARISON:

2003: In light of the space shuttle disaster yesterday in which the seven astronauts were killed do you feel the U.S. should or should not continue the manned space shuttle program?

1986: In light of the space shuttle disaster in January (1986) in which the seven astronauts were killed, do you feel the U.S. should or should not continue the manned space shuttle program?

Should
continue

Should not
continue

No
opinion

2003 Feb 2 ^

82%

15

3

1986 Mar 7-10 †

80%

17

3

8. There has been much discussion about attempting to land an astronaut on the planet Mars. How would you feel about such an attempt -- would you favor or oppose the United States setting aside money for such a project?

Favor

Oppose

No
opinion

%

%

%

2005 Jun 24-26

40

58

2

1999 Jul 13-14

43

54

3

1969 Jul 24-29

39

53

8

9. As you may know, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart and was lost in an accident in February, 2003. How much confidence do you have that NASA, the U.S. space agency, will be able to prevent accidents like this from happening in the future -- a great deal of confidence, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

2005 Jun 24-26

20%

56

18

5

1

Trends for Comparison: How much confidence do you have that NASA, the U.S. space agency, will be able to prevent accidents like this from happening in the future -- a great deal of confidence, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

2003 Feb 2

38%

44

11

6

1

1986 Mar 7-10 ^

38%

41

13

6

2

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