Posted: 5/13/2002 7:31:45 PM EDT
Poll: Public Support for NASA Slipping
By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 04:59 pm ET
10 May 2002
NASA's got some explaining to do if it wants to keep the taxpaying public interested in bankrolling its space exploits.
The National Science Board of Washington, D.C. has issued an assessment of public attitudes regarding science and technology. The report is the fifteenth in a series of biennial "Science Indicators" studies, released though the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Titled, Science and Engineering Indicators - 2002, the report looks at key aspects of the scope, quality, and vitality of America's science and engineering enterprise. The document includes a section on public attitudes toward space exploration.
Slip sliding away
The newly released document states that public support for space exploration rose during the 1990s, then slipped in 2001.
The most recent data show 45 percent of the public agreeing that the benefits of space exploration outweigh the costs, down from 49 percent in 1999.
Not since 1985 -- before the tragic space shuttle Challenger accident -- have more than 50 percent of respondents to NSF's public attitudes survey stated that the benefits of the space program exceeded the costs, notes the study.
That drop in support during the mid-1980s, from 54 percent in 1985 to 47 percent three years later, was particularly dramatic. NSF survey data suggested that most of the public was having difficulty recognizing the benefits of the space program. The effects of the Challenger accident -- and other mishaps, such as the loss of the billion-dollar Mars Observer spacecraft in 1993 -- rippled through the public, cutting into their confidence level.
Even NASA's recent successes, such as Senator John Glenn's return to space on the space shuttle Discovery in late 1998, have not provided a lasting boost to public opinion, the survey explains.
Cost or benefit?
The new report also explains that space exploration receives differing levels of support from men and women. Men are much more likely than women to champion the benefits of space exploration. In every year but two (1990 and 1992), a majority of men responding to the survey agreed that the benefits outweighed the costs, while 40 percent of women held this view.
In contrast, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, 50 percent or more of women responding to the survey thought that the costs exceeded the benefits. This is no longer true; in 2001, 45 percent of women thought that the costs outweighed the benefits, the NSF report notes.
Lastly, people who have more formal education are more likely than others to say that the benefits of space exploration exceed the costs.
In 2001, only 33 percent of respondents lacking a high school education agreed that the benefits outweighed the costs compared with 44 percent of those who had graduated from high school and 55 percent of those who had a bachelor's or higher degree.
Those identified as "attentive" to science/technology or space exploration are more likely than the public at large to believe that the benefits exceed the costs. In 2001, at least 60 percent of each attentive group put the benefits ahead of the costs compared with less than 50 percent of the public at large.
No budget increase
The NSF document refers to another survey series that has found a similar public pulse about NASA.
The Gallup News Service did that work, obtained by SPACE.com by request. In March 2001, they reported that, overall, the public views NASA positively, but that they have little interest in increasing the space agency's budget.
The survey series -- also involving CNN and USA Today -- has been tracking Americans' views of NASA over a number of years.
For instance, in late 1999, 53 percent of those surveyed described NASA's job performance as excellent or good; 43 percent gave the agency a fair or poor rating. In contrast, 76 percent rated NASA's performance as excellent or good following John Glenn's return to space in 1998. The lowest performance rating in this survey series was recorded in September 1993. At that time, only 43 percent thought that NASA's performance was excellent or good.
Ipsos-Reid U.S. Public Affairs of Washington, D.C. did a space poll project on behalf of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper in Florida.
It found that "the American public wants the space program to be more like the Centers for Disease Control - science harnessed to deliver practical benefits to people's lives," the Ipsos-Reid found. Similar to the NSF study, support for NASA comes mainly from the best-educated, highest-income Americans, men and whites.
"NASA has lost its broad popular charm with others," the Ipsos-Reid survey states. "The NASA program is in danger of being limited to elite support, and losing all broad, populist appeal," they report.
There is general, lukewarm agreement by the public on three space matters, the Ipsos-Reid found. "They continue to believe the space program is important to America's future; feel the space program has delivered practical benefits up to this point; and deem important its mission as part of the International Space Station."
Similar to the NSF review, Ipsos-Reid results show that Americans are not so confident that the program is worth its current price tag. They demand practical benefits from the program for the money spent.
Humans-to-Mars: not a priority
For those hungering to kick up a little Mars dust, not-so-fast.
The Ipsos-Reid poll points out:
"Few say a mission sending people to Mars should be NASA's first or second priority - a human Mars mission ranks last on America's list of priorities for the agency. Even those who support the concept of a manned mission to Mars (36 percent) place little priority on developing a plan to send people there. Instead, when asked with the top two priorities of NASA should be, those who support a manned mission to Mars still give top priority to conducting research on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (55 percent) or conducting research for U.S. industry (52 percent). Forty-seven percent would select exploring the universe with unmanned probes, while only 38 percent would support sending people to Mars."
"The public is no longer buying a romantic 'human-in-space' mission for NASA. Three-in-five Americans oppose a mission to send people to Mars," the Ipsos-Reid survey said.