Landing a Man on the Moon: The Public's View

by Frank Newport

Majority thinks space program has been worth it, although only half remember Neil Armstrong's name


PRINCETON, NJ --How well do Americans remember the Apollo 11 mission from 30 years ago?
About 7 out of 10 Americans who are 35 years of age or older say they watched the moon landing on television in July, 1969.

Do Americans remember the Apollo program with the same type of glowing terms being used to describe its historical significance today?
It appears that some of the hyperbole surrounding the moon effort is not necessarily endorsed by the average American. A July 13-14 poll asked Americans if they agreed with a statement, based on an assertion appearing on the NASA web site, that "the human race accomplished its single greatest technological achievement of all time by landing a man on the moon." Only 39% agree with this statement. Fifty-nine percent don't. Presumably, technological developments that have occurred since 1969, including in particular the computer, have stolen some of the moon program's luster.

Neil Armstrong has been very reclusive in the 30 years since his historic first step on the surface of the moon. How well is he remembered?
Not nearly as well as one might think for someone who may go down in history on the same page as Christopher Columbus. In the Gallup poll conducted last Tuesday and Wednesday nights, only 50% of the public correctly named Armstrong as the first person to walk on the moon. The second most prevalent guess was John Glenn, named by 13%, followed by Alan Shepard (who was the first man into space), and Buzz Aldrin, who was the second man on the moon. About 3% named someone else, while 28% couldn't come up with any name at all.

One assumes that it is young Americans who are least likely to remember Armstrong, since they were not alive at the time of the historic mission. Is this true?
No, exactly the opposite is true. Those who are now 18-29 years old, and thus who were not yet born in 1969, are most likely to be able to name Neil Armstrong. The older one gets, the less likely he or she is to name Armstrong, culminating in the fact that only 29% of those 65 and older can name him. It can be assumed that the youngest Americans are most likely to have run across the Armstrong name in their history classes, while older Americans, who may have watched on television, have fading memories when it comes to specifics.

By the way, Armstrong is better known now than he was 10 years ago, when in a similar Gallup poll, only 39% could name him as the first man to walk on the moon.

Do Americans know how many astronauts walked on the moon before the Apollo program was shut down?
As is often the case when it comes to numerical matters, most Americans are pretty wide of the mark in their attempts to answer this question. The correct answer -- 12 -- is given by only 5% of Americans, most of whom guess a number that is substantially lower than the right total. Perhaps because of the recent emphasis on the Apollo 11 mission, which was manned by three astronauts (only two of whom actually walked on the moon, of course), about a third of Americans guess that only one, two or three men have ever walked on the moon. Another third guess between four and seven, meaning that about two-thirds of Americans feel that seven or fewer humans have been on the lunar surface. The median response is five, meaning that about half guess less than five, while about half guess more than five.

Only 11% overestimate the correct total, and say that 13 or more men have walked on the moon.

Have the billions spent on the space program been worth it?
Americans have gradually become more likely to say that the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs. Back in 1979, ten years after Apollo 11, an NBC/ AP poll showed that only 41% of Americans said the benefits of the space program outweighed its costs. By 1994, 25 years after Apollo 11, that number had risen to 47%. Now, at the 30-year mark, 55% are positive about the benefits outweighing the costs, perhaps in part due to the publicity in the last year or two given to John Glenn's historic senior citizen voyage on the space shuttle.

Looking ahead, do Americans want more money to be spent on space exploration, or less?
Americans have mixed feelings. Since 1984, Gallup has been asking a question which emphasizes that all government programs have to be paid for out of taxes and then asks if specific programs should be increased, kept at the present level, decreased, or ended altogether.

In most years, the plurality of Americans say that the NASA budget should be kept the same, although the rest have usually tilted towards a view that it should be reduced or ended.

In 1986, a high water mark for NASA, 26% said that its budget should be increased, only 14% said that it should be reduced , 5% said that it should be ended, while 50% said that it should remain the same. In September 1993, on the other hand, only 9% wanted it increased, 37% said it should be kept the same, 41% said it should be reduced, and 10% said that it should be ended, meaning that a majority of Americans wanted NASA's budget cut or totally terminated.

In the most recent poll, 45% say that NASA's budget should remain the same. Of the rest, however, there is a more negative tilt, with 26% saying that it should be reduced, and another 8% saying that it should be ended altogether. Only 18% want NASA's budget to be increased.

One possible next target for manned exploration is Mars. How do Americans feel about the investment of billions to put a live human on the Red Planet?
Interestingly, Gallup asked Americans back in 1969 -- within a few days of the successful Apollo 11 mission -- if they favored "the United States setting aside money" for an attempt to land an astronaut on the planet Mars. Despite the extraordinary success of the just-completed mission to the moon, Americans were less than enthusiastic about extending the effort to Mars. Only 39% of those interviewed favored such an attempt, while 53% opposed it.

Gallup recently re-asked the same question, and found much the same result 30 years later. Forty-three percent favor the Mars project today, while 54% now oppose it.

Are Americans themselves interested in going to the moon if they could?
About a fourth -- 27% -- say they would like to go to the moon. That number, by the way, is double what Gallup found back in 1965, when the question was last asked.

Was there strong support for the Apollo program during the 1960s in the time between JFK's 1961 pledge to put a man on the moon before the decade was out, and the eventual landing on the moon in 1969?
Not nearly as much as might be imagined. In most polls conducted by Gallup during the 1960s, less than a majority of Americans said that the investment in getting a man to the moon was worth the cost. For example, a 1965 poll found only 39% of Americans thought that the U.S. should do everything possible, regardless of cost, to be the first nation on the moon.

A number of years ago there was a movie, "Capricorn One," whose premise was that the U.S. government was faking the televised landings of astronauts on other planetary bodies. From time to time, one hears that people still don't believe the moon landings really happened. Is that belief widespread?
No. According to the July 1999 Gallup poll, only about 6% of the American public buys into that conspiracy theory, exactly the same number as did in a TIME/CNN poll of four years ago. Although, if taken literally, 6% translates into millions of individuals, it is not unusual to find about that many people in the typical poll agreeing with almost any question that is asked of them -- so the best interpretation is that this particular conspiracy theory is not widespread.

The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,061 adults, 18 years and older, conducted July 13-14, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 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 I'd like to ask you about government spending on NASA. In answering, please bear in mind that sooner or later all government spending has to be taken care of out of the taxes that you and other Americans pay. Do you think spending on the U.S. space program should be increased, kept at the present level, reduced or ended altogether?

  Increased Kept at the present level Reduced Ended altogether No opinion
99 Jul 13-14 18% 45% 26% 8% 3%
98 Nov 20-22 21 47 26 4 2
93 Dec 11 42 38 8 1
93 Sep 9 37 41 10 3
91 May 2-5 21 44 28 3 4
1989 27 42 22 4 5
1986 26 50 14 5 5
1984 21 48 23 5 4

It is now thirty years since the United States first landed men on the moon. Do you think the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs, or don't you think so?

  Yes, brought enough benefits No, doesn't justify costs No opinion
99 Jul 13-14 55% 40% 5%
94 Jul 15-17 47 47 6
1979** 41 53 6

** 1979 NBC News/AP

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
99 Jul 13-14 43% 54% 3%
69 Jul 24-29 39 53 8

Do you happen to know who was the first person to walk on the moon?

  99 Jul 13-14 89 Jul 6-9
Neil Armstrong 50% 39%
John Glenn 13  
Alan Shepard 4  
Buzz Aldrin 2  
Other 3  
No opinion 28 61**
  100% 100%

** Incorrect; don't know

Just your best guess -- how many different men have walked on the moon?

1-11 77%
12 (correct) 5
13+ 11
No opinion 7

In 1969 did you happen to watch on television the first manned moon landing, or not?

  Yes No No opinion
Based on Total
99 Jul 13-14 53% 45% 2%
Based on those aged 5+ in 1969
99 Jul 13-14 (35+) 76 21 3
89 Jul 6-9 (25+) 82 15 3

Would you, yourself, like to go to the moon?

  Yes No No opinion
99 Jul 13-14 27% 72% 1%
65 Jun 24-29 13 87 0

Would you say that "the human race accomplished its single greatest technological achievement of all time by landing a man on the moon," or not?

Yes 39%
No 59
No opinion 2

Thinking about the space exploration, do you think the government staged or faked the Apollo moon landing, or don't you feel that way?

  Yes, staged No No opinion
99 Jul 13-14 6% 89% 5%
95 Jul 19-20** 6 83 11

** Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners, Inc. Poll

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