A July 2011 CNN/ORC poll conducted at the end of the Space Shuttle program showed a majority of respondents wanted the private sector to “run the country's manned space missions in the future.” Image source: Roper Center.
Some in the space advocacy community believe that space exploration has widespread public support.
But there's a difference between exploring space, and paying for it.
Polls over the decades consistently have shown tepid support at best by the public for a robustly financed government space program.
In 2003, space historian Roger Launius published an article titled, “Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of U.S. Human Spaceflight.”. The article's abstract summary stated:
A belief exists in the United States about public support for NASA’s human spaceflight activities. Many hold that NASA and the cause of the human exploration of space enjoyed outstanding public support and confidence in the 1960s during the era of Apollo and that public support waned in the post-Apollo era, only to sink to quite low depths in the decade of the 1990s. These beliefs are predicated on anecdotal evidence that should not be discounted, but empirical evidence gleaned from public opinion polling data suggests that some of these conceptions are totally incorrect and others are either incomplete or more nuanced than previously believed.
In the introduction, Launius wrote:
Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda.
Launius reminded the reader that in the 1960s, “spaceflight served as a surrogate for face-to-face military confrontation” with the Soviet Union.
Over the period 1978-1999, Launius found a consistently positive impression among the American people for the space program.
But that doesn't mean the public wants to pay for it.
... [M]any Americans hold seemingly contradictory attitudes on NASA and human space exploration. Most are in favor of the human exploration and development of space and view it as important, but also believe that federal money could be better spent on other programs. This relates closely to empirical research on other aspects of public policy. The American public is notorious for its willingness to support programs in principle but to oppose their funding at levels appropriate to sustain them. Most are also in favor of NASA as an organization, but are relatively unfamiliar with the majority of its activities and objectives, and sometimes question individual projects.
Launius' article was published soon after the STS-107 Columbia loss on February 1, 2003. Launius commented:
In the aftermath of the Columbia accident perhaps the nation will finally realize the necessity of moving forward with a replacement human spaceflight vehicle. The decision to do so may be one of the most significant outcomes of the Columbia accident investigation.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued its report on August 26, 2003. Click here to download the report. And you can click here to read my commentary on the report and its consequences.
On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush gave a speech which proposed the retirement of the Space Shuttle effective the end of International Space Station construction circa 2010. On January 28, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the President's proposal. The next month, the administration issued the Vision for Space Exploration report which became the blueprint for the government's space policy through the end of the decade.
On January 13, 2004, the day before the President's speech, Florida Today ran on its front page an Associated Press article titled, “Poll: U.S. Tepid on Bush Space Plans.” According to the article:
More than half in the poll said it would be better to spend the money on domestic programs rather than on space research.
Asked whether they favored the United States expanding the space program the way Bush proposes, people were evenly split, with 48 percent favoring the idea and the same number opposing it, according to the poll conducted by the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.
Six years later, this trend persisted.
In October 2010, I posted a blog article titled, “Americans Divided on Space Exploration.” The article looked at a series of polls conducted that year by Rasmussen Reports. Their October 2010 poll concluded:
When it comes to cutting back on space exploration, Americans are evenly divided. Forty-one percent (41%) believe the United States should cut back on space exploration, down nine points from January, but an equal number (41%) disagree. Seventeen percent (17%) are not sure.
The three polls also asked Americans their opinion about shifting the cost of space exploration to the private sector. Although Bush's VSE included a commercial space component, in 2010 the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program was just on the cusp of its first test flights, as SpaceX was about to launch its first Dragon on December 8. There was no reason to think the typical American would know anything about commercial space. The October 2010 poll asked, “Should the space program be funded by the government or the private sector?”
The poll's finding:
Forty percent (40%) of Americans feel the space program should be funded by the government, up slightly from April. Thirty-two percent (32%) say funding for the program should come from the private sector. Twenty-eight percent (28%) are undecided.
Polls in the last year continue to show tepid public support for government-funded space exploration.
A March 2012 Harris Poll asked respondents, “Below is a list of different areas of federal government spending. For each, please indicate if you would favor a major cut in spending, a minor cut, no cut at all, or would you increase spending in this area?”
One of the options was “Space programs.” 52% favored cuts, 39% opposed and 9% were not sure.
Those results were fairly consistent across party lines. 56% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans wanted space programs cut. 51% of Tea Party supporters wanted cuts.
An August 2012 Rasmussen Reports telephone poll posed the question, “Within the next decade, should the United States resume manned space missions to the moon?”
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of American Adults shows that 41% believe the United States should resume manned space missions to the moon during the next decade. Nearly as many (37%) disagree and don’t think the country should resume those missions. Twenty-two percent (22%) are undecided.
Rasmussen also asked about an eventual human spaceflight mission to Mars.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 36% of American Adults think the current goals of the space program should include sending someone to Mars. Thirty-eight percent (38%) disagree, while 27% are not sure.
Last week in Houston, yet another space policy forum lamented the lack of direction and funding from Congress for the government space program.
The polls show why.
If it's not that important to the American public, then it's not that important to Congress.
But that doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't go to space.
Public response might be different if someone else paid for it.
A July 2011 CNN/ORC International Poll conducted at the end of the Space Shuttle program asked, “In general, do you think the US (United States) should rely more on the government or more on private companies to run the country's manned space missions in the future?”
54% chose private companies, 38% chose government, 4% chose both equally, 2% said neither, and 2% had no opinion.
At a time one might assume the public was feeling nostalgic, if not outright mourning, for the end of the Space Shuttle program, a majority wanted space turned over to the private sector.
As SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, XCOR, Stratolaunch, Armadillo, Blue Origin, Golden Spike, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, Rocket Crafters and whomever next holds a press conference to announce their latest commercial space endeavour, perhaps it's time for more polls to pose the public/private question.
Asking the taxpayer to support a government space program is a different question from asking Americans if they support the overall notion of space exploration. The key difference is who pays for it.