Americans Want Space Shuttle Program to Go On

by Frank Newport

Most doubt terrorism involved

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

Despite the second space shuttle catastrophe in 17 years, Americans want the program to continue and most remain convinced that the nation should not abandon its emphasis on a manned approach to space exploration.

A special CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Sunday shows that the public's reactions to Saturday's tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas are in many ways quite close to those measured after the January 1986 explosion of the Challenger shuttle. Americans wanted the space shuttle program to continue then, and they persist in wanting it to continue now.

The poll shows no signs that the public's overall faith in NASA has dropped after Saturday's events. Most want the space agency's funding either to remain the same or to be increased. Additionally, very few Americans think the breakup and loss of the Columbia on Saturday was the result of terrorism.

Many Americans, while upset over the tragedy, felt that something like it was bound to happen, and only about 4 out of 10 have a great deal of confidence that NASA will be able to prevent future shuttle accidents.

Here are the highlights of the special CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003 with a random sample of 462 adults.

Public Doubts Terrorism Involved

The vast majority of Americans agree with the preliminary assessments of various government experts and officials that the tragic breaking apart of the Columbia spacecraft on Saturday was not due to terrorism. Only 12% of Americans feel the accident was probably or definitely due to terrorism, while 86% say it was not. This includes 53% who are definite in their beliefs that terrorism was not involved, and another 33% who say it was probably not terrorism.

Based on what you have heard or read, how likely do you think it is that the loss of the Space Shuttle was a terrorist act? Do you think it was -- [ROTATED: definitely an act of terrorism, probably an act of terrorism, probably not an act of terrorism (or) definitely not an act of terrorism]?

 

Definitely terrorism

Probably terrorism

Probably not terrorism

Definitely not terrorism

No
opinion

2003 Feb 2

2%

10

33

53

2



Most Want Manned Space Flight to Continue

The responses to two different questions included in the Sunday poll indicate that Americans want the space shuttle program, and more generally the United States' emphasis on a manned approach to exploring space, to continue.

In early 1986, shortly after the Challenger disaster, 8 out of 10 Americans said the manned space shuttle program should continue -- even in light of the tragedy. Now, in the wake of another tragedy and another seven astronaut deaths, the attitudes of the public have not changed. Eighty-two percent say the United States should continue with the manned space shuttle program, while only 15% say the nation should not do so:

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?

 

Should continue

Should not continue

No opinion

2003 Feb 2

82%

15

3

1986 Mar 7-10 ^

80%

17

3

^ WORDING: 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?



Additionally, 73% of those interviewed on Sunday believe the space program should continue to include manned missions in addition to unmanned missions like the Voyager probe. Here again, the results are very similar to those obtained in 1986.

Some people say the United States should concentrate on unmanned missions like the Voyager probe. Others say it is important to maintain a manned space program, as well. Which comes closer to your view?

 

Unmanned missions

Manned missions as well

No opinion

2003 Feb 2

22%

73

5

1986 Jan 29-30

21%

67

12



NASA's Image Remains Positive

What about the image and future of NASA? There is very little indication in Sunday's data that Americans want government funding of the space program to be decreased or ended altogether, even in light of the tragedy. The poll also shows that the overall image of the space agency appears to have become more positive rather than more negative in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's events.

Gallup has asked the public periodically over the last 19 years about the amount of money the government spends on the U.S. space program.

A majority of Americans have almost always agreed that funding should be kept at current levels or increased, with the exception of a poll conducted in September 1993, when only 46% wanted the funding to remain the same or to increase.

Support for decreasing or ending funding of the space program has ranged from a low of 19% just after the Challenger disaster in 1986 to a high of 51% in 1993. In a 1999 poll -- the most recent one Gallup had conducted on the subject before Sunday -- about a third advocated keeping funding the same or decreasing it.

Sunday's poll shows a rise from the 1999 poll in the percentage of Americans who want NASA's funding increased (now at 24%) and a drop to only 16% who want space funding decreased or ended altogether.

Should the amount of money being spent on the U.S. space program be increased, kept at current levels, decreased or ended altogether?

 

Increased

Kept at current levels

Decreased

Ended altogether

No
opinion

2003 Feb 2

24%

56

9

7

4



TREND FOR COMPARISON:

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 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 present level

Reduced

Ended altogether

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

1999 Dec 9-12

16

49

24

10

1

1999 Jul 13-14

18

45

26

8

3

1998 Nov 20-22

21

47

26

4

2

1993 Dec 17-19

11

42

38

8

1

1993 Sep 13-15

9

37

41

10

3

1991 May 2-5

21

44

28

3

4

1989 Jul 6-9

27

42

22

4

5

1986 Jan 29-30

26

50

14

5

5

1984 Jan 30-Feb 6

21

48

23

5

4



NASA itself gets very positive marks in the Sunday survey. The question used in the poll explicitly asked respondents to look "beyond the tragedy" in assessing the job performance of NASA. Perhaps because of this instruction, the responses were significantly more positive than at any other time since 1990 in which this job performance question had been asked:

Looking beyond the tragedy, how would you rate the job being done by NASA? Would you say it is doing an excellent, good, only fair, or poor job?

 

Excellent

Good

Only fair

Poor

No
opinion

2003 Feb 2

45%

37

13

2

3



TREND FOR COMPARISON:

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

%

%

%

%

%

1999 Dec 9-12

13

40

31

12

4

1999 Jul 13-14

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 previous high point on the "excellent" measure was in November 1998, when 26% rated NASA's performance as excellent.

Future research will be needed to measure the longer term impact of Saturday's accident on the space agency's overall image.

Many Americans Not Totally Surprised

About 6 out of 10 Americans say they are "deeply upset" by Saturday's disaster, while most of the rest say they are "somewhat upset." These personal reactions are very similar to those recorded in a Louis Harris and Associates poll conducted just after the Challenger disaster of 1986.

When the space shuttle Columbia was lost yesterday, did you personally feel deeply upset, somewhat upset, not very upset, or not upset at all?

 

Deeply upset

Somewhat upset

Not very upset

Not upset at all

No
opinion

2003 Feb 2

58%

36

1

3

2

1986 Jan 31-Feb 3 ^

63%

29

5

3

--

^ Louis Harris and Associates poll. WORDING: When the space shuttle Challenger blew up this past week, did you personally feel deeply upset, somewhat upset, not very upset, or not upset at all?



It's clear from the poll responses that the public was perhaps not totally shocked at the tragic events of Saturday. Asked whether they thought something like this would happen again sooner or later, or if they didn't think something like this would ever happen again in their lifetimes, 7 out of 10 Americans chose the former alternative. Just about 3 out of 10 said they had felt before the tragedy that such accidents would never happen again in their lifetimes.

Which comes closer to your view -- [ROTATED: yesterday's tragedy was regrettable, but you thought something like this would happen again sooner or later (or) yesterday's tragedy was regrettable and you didn't think something like this would ever happen again in your lifetime]?

 

Thought would happen again

Did not think would happen again

No opinion

2003 Feb 2

71%

28

1



This question was asked on Sunday for the first time, but the responses suggest that the Challenger disaster of 17 years ago may have increased the American public's awareness of the inherent risks of space travel.

Only About 4 in 10 Have Great Confidence That Future Shuttle Accidents Can Be Prevented

Americans have almost precisely the same level of confidence in the ability of the space agency to prevent future accidents like this from happening that they did following the 1986 Challenger disaster. This is despite the self-evident fact that the actions of NASA after 1986 did not forestall Saturday's tragedy.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in NASA to prevent future shuttle accidents. About 17% say they have not very much or no confidence at all in the space agency's ability to prevent future accidents.

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?

 

A 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

^ WORDING: How much confidence do you have that NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) will be able to prevent accidents like this (the space shuttle Challenger explosion) from happening in the future -- a great deal of confidence, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?



Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with -- 462 -- national adults, aged 18+, conducted Feb. 2, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 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.

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.

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