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Public Opinion About Space Exploration


We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.

—President George W. Bush, January 14, 2004

How will a country at war and in deficit pay for such things?

Harvard Independent Newsmagazine, February 12, 2004

Humans seem to have an inherent desire to surmount great obstacles and push into new frontiers. There have always been brave people willing to risk their lives on bold and dangerous journeys into uncharted territory. They have climbed Mount Everest, traversed wild jungles, crossed barren deserts, and sailed stormy seas. Successful explorers become popular heroes. Their achievements thrill and delight people who do not have the energy, resources, or courage to go themselves.

America's space program taps into this spirit of adventure. Astronauts became the heroic explorers of the twentieth century. They opened new frontiers and set foot on the Moon. These successes were achieved at a high price. They cost the country human lives and billions of dollars that some critics say could have been spent feeding the poor, healing the sick, and housing the homeless. Was it worth it?

Space exploration is appealing on a psychological level. It is awesome, daring, and closely associated with the nation's can-do optimism and patriotic pride. A robust space program also showcases and strengthens American capabilities in science, engineering, and technology. These are powerful motivations to keep venturing out into space.

On the other side lie the staggering problems facing American society—incurable diseases, crime, poverty, pollution, unemployment, and war. These are expensive problems. People concerned with poor social conditions resent the billions spent in outer space. Within the scientific community many respected researchers would rather see scarce funds devoted to Earth-related research than

1.World War II
2.Women gaining the right to vote in 1920
3.Dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945
4.The Nazi Holocaust during World War II
5.Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
6.World War I
7.Landing a man on the moon in 1969
8.The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963
9.The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
10.The U.S. Depression in the 1930s
11.The breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s
12.The Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s
13.Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in 1927
14.The launching of the Russian Sputnik satellites in the 1950s
15.The Korean War in the early 1950s
16.The Persian Gulf War in 1991
17.The impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998
18.The Watergate scandal involving Richard Nixon in the 1970s
source: Adapted from Frank Newport, David W. Moore and Lydia Saad, "The 18 events were then rank-ordered based on the percentage of Americans who placed each in the top category as one of the most important events of the century," in The Most Important Events of the Century, The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, December 6,1999

space science. There are promising scientific and medical frontiers on this planet that still need to be explored.

In a democratic society the public gets to weigh the relative costs and benefits of national goals and decide which ones to pursue. Public opinion polls show that most Americans have an uneasy devotion to the nation's space travel agenda. They love the idea, but hate paying the bill. Sometimes they wonder if money spent on space might be better spent here on Earth. It is a debate that has raged since the earliest days of space exploration and probably always will be a prime issue in space science.


In November 1999 the Gallup Organization asked people to rank eighteen specific events of the twentieth century in order of importance. The resulting list is shown in Table 9.1. Landing a man on the moon ranked seventh in importance. This put it behind major events associated with World War I, World War II, and important social milestones that granted rights to women and minorities. Fifty percent of those asked believed that landing a man on the moon was the most important event of the century. (See Figure 9.1.)

A second space-travel milestone also made the top eighteen list. Ranked fourteenth was the launching of the Russian Sputnik satellites during the 1950s. Twenty-five percent of those asked rated this one of the most important events of the century. Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927 also made the list, coming in at number thirteen.

These responses were given in a poll that addressed specific incidents during the last century, rather than technological achievements developed over time. By contrast, a Gallup poll conducted earlier the same year (1999) found that only 39 percent of those asked agreed with a NASA claim that putting a man on the moon was the "single greatest technological achievement of all time." (See Figure 9.2.) More than half (59 percent) of the respondents did not agree with the claim. Gallup analysts speculate that most Americans probably consider the computer a greater technological achievement than the manned lunar landing.

An ABC News poll conducted in August 1999 asked 506 adults about their greatest hope for humankind over the next millennium. The results showed that the greatest single hope was for world peace (38 percent) followed by cures for terminal illnesses (13 percent). The ability to travel farther into space was mentioned by only 4 percent of the respondents. This is the same percentage expressing hope for improved racial relations and less pollution.

In February 2003 Gallup asked 1,200 teenagers across the country to assess three technological phenomena in terms of their potential impact upon the future. The results are shown in Figure 9.3. The Internet received the highest ranking of the three choices. Eighty-seven percent of the teenagers asked believe that the Internet will have at least some influence upon their future. This compares with 77 percent for genetic engineering and 70 percent for space travel. Clearly most teenagers believe that space travel is an endeavor of importance to their future, but feel that it may not play as large a role as computer and biological technologies.


History shows that space travel was a national priority during the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson were convinced that putting a man on the Moon was vital to America's political interests during the Cold War. They convinced Congress to devote billions of dollars to the effort. At the time, the public was not very enthusiastic about the idea. According to the Gallup organization, most polls they conducted during the 1960s showed that less than 50 percent of Americans considered the endeavor worth the cost.

In 1967 civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., said "Without denying the value of scientific endeavor, there is a striking absurdity in committing billions to reach the moon where no people live, while only a fraction of that amount is appropriated to service the densely populated slums."

King's sentiment sums up very well a moral question that has always plagued the space program. Is it right for a nation to spend its money on space travel while there are people suffering on Earth?

NASA would argue that its budget comprises only a tiny fraction of the nation's total spending. Figure 2.1 in chapter 2 shows that in 2003 NASA received less than 1 percent of the federal budget and has been near this level since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

In August 2003 Gallup asked 1,003 adults their thoughts about government spending on NASA. The results are shown in Figure 9.4. About 48 percent said that NASA's budget should remain at its current level, while 23 percent thought it should be increased. Another 21 percent thought NASA's budget should be decreased, and 5 percent wanted to end NASA completely. Support for increasing NASA's funding was strongest among men, younger people, and those with advanced degrees.

Gallup has been asking this same poll question since 1984. As shown in Figure 9.5 the percentage of people wanting to increase NASA's budget has varied between 10 and 27 percent over time. Consistently, the largest group of people (41 to 51 percent) has advocated maintaining the Agency's budget at its existing level. Support for decreasing NASA's budget rose dramatically during 1993, reaching a high of 41 percent. (See Figure 9.6.) At the time, NASA was under fire for problems aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The $1.5 billion observatory had been launched into space with an optical defect in its mirrors. In late 1993 a shuttle servicing mission had to be performed for astronauts to correct the problem.

Between 1993 and 2003 the percentage of people wanting to decrease NASA's budget dropped from a high of almost 10 percent. Support for ending NASA has historically hovered between 3 and 10 percent.

There are many programs competing for funding in the federal budget. During the August 2003 survey, Gallup asked poll participants if money should be taken away from the space program and devoted to other programs instead. The answers varied widely, depending on the program against which space travel was paired.

The largest number of respondents (74 percent) would transfer money from the space program to increase funding for healthcare. National defense was also a pressing priority, with 60 percent of those asked willing to take money away from the space program for national defense. Only 38 percent of poll participants wanted to increase funding for the nation's welfare program at the expense of the space program.


In the 1960s television show Star Trek space was called "the final frontier." While this may be true from a philosophical viewpoint, it does not apply as well to the realm of science. Geneticists, oceanographers, geologists, and biologists would argue that there are still many scientific and medical frontiers to be explored on Earth.

Since 1998 marine biologist Sylvia Earle has been an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. That same year Time magazine named her a "hero for the planet." In March 2004 the Associated Press asked Earle about NASA's recent discovery that water once existed on Mars (Mars Critics Wonder if Billions Aren't Better Spent Elsewhere, Environmental News Network, March 9, 2004).

Earle stated that "the resources going into the investigation of our own planet and its oceans are trivial compared to investment looking for water elsewhere in the universe. Real oceans need scientific attention more than the dried-up remnants on Mars." She said that she does not want to cut funding for space science, but noted that "we have better maps of Mars than our own ocean floor. That's just not right."

Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Etzioni believes that the scientific community should focus more attention on Earth's oceans, because of their potential to yield new energy and food sources or medical breakthroughs that would benefit humanity. He too criticizes the millions spent looking for water on Mars and asks, "What difference does it make to anyone's life?"

The sociologist is a long-time critic of America's space program and NASA's operation of it. He wrote the 1964 book Moon Doggle that questioned the scientific value of putting astronauts on the moon and criticized NASA for favoring expensive manned missions over cheaper, more productive robotic missions. This complaint has been a common one in the scientific community from the 1960s onward.

Astronomers and physicists fought throughout the 1970s and 1980s for large, sophisticated observatories to be put in space to gather data about solar and galactic phenomena. Time and again funding for their programs was slashed, because NASA needed more money for the space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) programs. NASA's Great Observatories (including the Hubble Space Telescope) eventually did make it into orbit.

Although smaller and weaker than what scientists originally wanted, these observatories are considered some of space science's greatest triumphs. The Hubble Space Telescope alone has captured thousands of images of celestial objects and greatly advanced human understanding about the origins and workings of the universe.

In January 2004, however, NASA announced it would let Hubble fall out of orbit before the end of its useful life. The observatory needs an altitude boost that only a space shuttle mission can give it, but NASA does not want to risk astronaut lives for such a purpose. Since the 2003 Columbia disaster the Agency has been hypersensitive about shuttle safety issues. Also, NASA has switched its focus to President George W. Bush's new space travel mandate. This plan calls for devoting shuttle missions to finishing the ISS as soon as possible and then retiring the shuttle fleet. Bush wants NASA to concentrate on developing a new spacecraft for long-distance flights to the Moon and Mars.

The Hubble telescope decision met with disapproval from many astronomers and space scientists who were once again disappointed to see human missions given priority over robotic ones. It is very expensive to send explorers into space, particularly human ones. Robotic spacecraft can accomplish more for less money, but they lack the glamour of human explorers. Machines do not give television interviews from space or get ticker tape parades when they come back. Astronauts do. Human explorers inspire young people to be astronauts and encourage voters and politicians to keep funding space travel. NASA knows that machines simply do not reap the same public relations benefits as human astronauts. However, due to significant outcry from both the public and the scientific community over the Hubble telescope decision, NASA administrators agreed to postpone a final decision until after a commission of space scientists submitted a report proposing other ways to prolong the working life of the telescope; the commission's report was expected to be completed in Fall 2004.

Gallup polls show very strong support among Americans for crewed missions into space. This is true despite the accidents that have taken astronaut lives. Soon after the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters the Gallup Organization polled 462 adults about their opinions on manned missions. As shown in Figure 9.7 more than 80 percent of the people asked in each poll thought the manned space shuttle program should continue.

Gallup also asked whether the United States should concentrate on unmanned missions or also include manned missions. (See Figure 9.8.) In both polls a healthy majority of the respondents expressed support for manned missions. The percentage actually increased from 67 percent in 1986 to 73 percent in 2003. Obviously Americans want human explorers to venture into space.


Although it is widely acknowledged that space travel has psychological and scientific benefits to society, it is more difficult to point to everyday products that have directly resulted from the nation's space program. Certainly satellites have brought about great changes in telecommunications, navigation, military operations, and weather prediction. All of these developments do affect American lives.

Many people believe that technologies associated with space exploration have advanced the fields of robotics, computer programming, and cryogenics (the physics of extremely cold temperatures).

NASA Speaks Out

One of the mandates of the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act is that the Agency (and its contractors) must publicize any new developments significant to commercial industry.

NASA accomplishes this through three publications: the quarterly newsletter NASA Aerospace Technology Innovation; a monthly magazine for engineers, managers, and scientists called NASA Tech Briefs; and Spinoff, an annual publication describing successfully commercialized NASA technology.

In 2003 NASA released a booklet called NASA Hits: Rewards from SpaceHow NASA Improves Our Quality of Life. The booklet describes practical benefits associated with NASA's work in space flight, space science, Earth science, and aeronautical research and development, including:

  • Communications satellite technology
  • Medical monitoring systems used in intensive care units
  • The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system for ensuring food safety
  • The NASTRAN software system for computerized design
  • Space-based beacon locators used in satellite-based search and rescue systems
  • Use of thin grooves in concrete airport runways and highways to improve drainage and reduce hydroplaning
  • Advances in hydroponics (growing crops using water rather than soil to support plants)
  • Improved hurricane forecasting and wildfire tracking using Earth-observing satellites
  • Developments in microelectromechanical systems (extremely small devices and sensors about the diameter of a human hair)
  • Combustion research that has improved the performance of jet engines
  • Suspension techniques used by animal researchers
  • A new light source now used to improve chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients
  • Needle-based biopsies used in breast cancer diagnosis
  • Bioreactors (devices used to turn cell cultures into functional tissue)
  • Lifeshears (a hand-held shearing tool used by rescue workers to free people trapped in cars or underneath rubble)

The booklet also discusses patents and Nobel prizes associated with NASA-funded research and development.

The Public Speaks Out

Figure 9.9 presents the results of polls conducted on the 10th, 25th, and 30th anniversaries of the Apollo 11 moon landing regarding benefits of the nation's space program.

In each poll the participants were asked whether they believe the space program has benefited the country enough to justify its costs. The 1979 poll conducted by NBC News and the Associated Press found that only 41 percent of respondents considered the benefits worth the costs. A majority (53 percent) thought the expense was not worth what was accomplished. In a 1994 Gallup poll Americans were evenly split on the issue, with 47 percent taking each side. By 1999 the space program had earned a bit more respect. Gallup reports that 55 percent of those asked felt the space program's benefits justified its cost, while 40 percent did not.


NASA employs a number of public relations tools designed to interest and excite people about space travel. Since its inception the Agency has recognized that public support is crucial to fostering a successful long-term space program.


Throughout the Space Age NASA has used television as a publicity tool to try to spark greater interest in the space program. Television turned out to be one of the greatest public relations tools of the Apollo program. In 1968 the Apollo 7 astronauts conducted the first live television interview from space. All of the remaining Apollo flights carried television cameras. The worldwide television audience for the Apollo 11 moon landing was estimated at half a billion people.

In July 1999 the Gallup Organization polled Americans about their memories of the first manned lunar landing by Apollo 11. The survey found that 76 percent of people aged 35 and up claimed to have watched the event on television as it happened.

NASA's Web Site

NASA operates one of the most colorful and elaborate web sites of any federal agency. It includes thousands of mission photographs and millions of documents related to the nation's space endeavors. The web site provides detailed information about NASA facilities, programs, and missions. There are a variety of multimedia features, including interactive displays, video and audio downloads, and spectacular images of Earth and space captured by NASA spacecraft. Enormous historical archives that include documentation dating back to the earliest days of space travel are available online.

According to NASA, the web site is visited millions of times each day. The number of "hits" increases dramatically during highly publicized missions. For example, NASA reported receiving 6.53 billion hits between January 4, 2004 and February 19, 2004. This period of time coincides with the highly successful landings of the Mars Exploration rovers on Mars.


One of the ways that NASA tries to engage public interest in space travel is by posting sighting opportunities for its satellites, particularly the International Space Station (ISS) and any ongoing shuttle missions. The NASA web site instructs people how and where to look in the nighttime sky to see the spacecraft passing overhead. Figure 9.10 shows a set of instructions for viewing the ISS at a particular location, assuming that skies are clear enough.

The listing identifies the exact date and time at which the ISS should become visible to observers on the ground and how long it will remain visible. It also gives information about the station's location in the sky based on direction (north, south, east, or west) and angle of elevation compared to the horizon. A spacecraft flying directly overhead would be at 90 degrees maximum elevation.

In the example shown the ISS is to first appear in the west-southwest (WSW) direction approximately 10 degrees above the horizon. It will then climb to a maximum elevation of 66 degrees above the horizon and travel out of sight heading toward the northeast (NE). It should disappear from view about 31 degrees above the horizon. This progression is illustrated in the diagram at the top of Figure 9.10.

NASA says that a spacecraft looks like "a steady white pinpoint of light moving slowly across the sky." Viewers are urged to observe spacecraft with the naked eye or through binoculars. The speed at which the spacecraft are moving makes telescope viewing impractical.

NASA's website provides links to sighting data for 672 cities around the world. People at locations not listed can use an applet (a small application program) called SkyWatch to enter their latitude and longitude and receive viewing information. SkyWatch includes information about thousands of objects known to be in orbit around Earth, including obsolete satellites, rocket casings, and other large space debris.


NASA operates its own television network called NASA TV or NTV. NTV broadcasts via satellite and cable and is streamed over the Internet. It features live coverage of NASA activities and missions, video of events for the news media, and educational programming for teachers and students.

The show NASA Education Hour plays at 8 a.m. EST every weekday morning and is rebroadcast at regular intervals throughout the day and night. Hour-long coverage of the ISS mission is presented live at 11 a.m. EST daily.

Ham Radio

Ham radio is communication between amateur radio station operators. These operators use two-way radio stations to communicate with each other via voice, computer, television transmission, and/or Morse code. Ham radio evolved from the telegraph system, which was common before the telephone came into widespread use. Ham radio operators must be licensed by the Federal Communications Center (FCC). The FCC assigns each operator a unique identifier code called a call sign.

Ham radios vary in signal strength and capability. The strongest stations can reach operators on the other side of the world by bouncing signals off the upper atmosphere or using satellites.

In November 1983 astronaut Owen Garriott carried a small ham radio with him aboard the space shuttle Columbia (STS-9). During his spare time he used the radio to contact fellow ham operators around the world. This was the first of more than twenty-four shuttle missions that carried ham radio equipment so astronauts could communicate with their families and other ham operators worldwide and perform interviews for school children. The program was called the Space Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX). The Soviet space agency operated a similar ham radio program for cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station.

In September 2000 the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis (STS-106) carried a ham radio to the International Space Station (ISS) for use by Expedition crews. The SAREX program was given the new name of Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS). Under the ARISS program ISS crewmembers can communicate with ham radio operators all over the world.

Educational Programs

NASA's 2003 Strategic Plan says that one of the Agency's primary goals is to "inspire the next generation of explorers." In order to accomplish this goal NASA operates an extensive student education enterprise designed to encourage young people to pursue studies in science, mathematics, technology, and engineering and careers in aeronautics and space science. The enterprise's proposed budget for 2004 was $164 million. NASA prides itself on its educational programs and the partnerships it establishes with schools, museums, libraries, and science centers around the nation to reach as many young people as possible.


Spacelink is an electronic resource developed by NASA in 1988 specifically for the educational community. The web site includes an extensive collection of educational publications and provides the schedule for educational programs presented on NTV. The web site is located on the Internet at


Teacher Resource Centers (TRCs) are offices maintained at certain NASA facilities around the country. TRCs serve as libraries that loan educational materials including lesson plans, audio and video tapes, slides, and miscellaneous print publications to teachers.


One of the most innovative ways that students can interact with astronauts in orbit is via ARISS, which is sponsored by NASA in conjunction with the American Radio Relay League and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation. Volunteers set up ham radio stations at schools so that students can interview ISS crewmembers. As of March 2004 more than 126 ARISS interviews have been conducted in eighteen countries. There is a two-year waiting list of schools that have applied to participate in the program.


In March 2004 NASA announced a new partnership with Pearson Scott Foresman (PSF), a leading publisher of educational products for elementary schools. PSF will draw upon publications in the NASA archives to create new science textbooks and other learning materials for the classroom. According to NASA, the goal of the program is to "spark student imagination, encourage interest in space exploration, and enhance elementary science curricula."

Art Program

In 1962 NASA administrator James Webb established the NASA Art Program to encourage and collect works of art about aeronautics and space. As of 2004 the NASA art collection includes more than 800 works of art in a variety of media including paintings, drawings, poems, and songs. NASA has donated more than 2,000 of its art works (including a number by Norman Rockwell) to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Other famous artists that have participated in the program include Annie Leibovitz, William Wegman, Andy Warhol, and Jamie Wyeth.

More than 200 artists have provided art works to the program. According to the NASA website the Agency pays a "small honorarium" to artists commissioned to contribute to the collection. Many of the pieces are displayed at art galleries and museums around the country. NASA centers, particularly the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, also display the art works in their visitor areas.

Novel Astronauts

Astronauts have always been NASA's greatest public relations agents. The early astronauts became instant heroes during the 1950s and 1960s. They were flooded with fan mail and held up by the media as sterling role models of what was great and daring about America. After the first Moon landing in 1969 public interest in the space program began to fade. The astronauts of later decades were still admired and respected, but not treated to the same level of hero worship as their predecessors.

During the early 1980s NASA decided to include a new type of astronaut on space shuttle flights to catch the public's attention. The Agency began the Educator-in-Space program. NASA hoped that sending a teacher into space would excite the nation's schoolchildren and foster goodwill toward the space program. Teacher Christa McAuliffe was selected and trained for a mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Sadly, she was killed with the other crew members in 1986 when the shuttle exploded soon after liftoff.

NASA's public relations experiment turned into a nightmare. The catastrophe brought harsh criticism of the Agency. The shuttle program was found to have serious management and safety problems. The loss seemed even more poignant to the public because a teacher, an everyday kind of person, had been one of the victims. NASA decided that space shuttle travel was not routine enough to risk the lives of private citizens as good-will ambassadors.

In 1998 NASA relented somewhat and allowed former Mercury astronaut John Glenn to ride aboard the space shuttle Discovery on mission STS-92. At the time Glenn was a 77-year-old senator from Ohio. NASA said the mission would reveal new knowledge about the effects of weightlessness and bone loss in older people. Critics complained that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Whatever the motivation, the event did greatly improve NASA's image. The public was entranced by the idea of an old hero traveling back into space.

Tourist Attractions

Many NASA facilities have become popular tourist attractions. This is particularly true for Centers associated with the Apollo and space shuttle programs. Most NASA facilities operate their own visitor centers for which admission is free. Johnson Space Center (Houston, Texas), Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, Florida), and Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, Alabama) have privately-operated tourist centers that charge a fee for admittance.

Contests and Gimmicks

One relatively new way that NASA engages the public in space travel is by holding spacecraft-naming contests. During the 1990s NASA held contests that chose the names for the Mars Pathfinder mission's Sojourner rover and the Magellan spacecraft.

In 1998 the Agency asked people to suggest names for an x-ray telescope to be launched as part of the Great Observatories Program. Each entry had to be supported by a short essay justifying why the name was appropriate. More than 6,000 people entered the contest, representing every state in the country and 61 other nations. Two winning essays were selected. Both suggested the name Chandra, in honor of late Indian-American Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. The winners were a high-school student from Laclede, Idaho, and a high-school teacher from Camarillo, California.

During 2001 a similar contest was held to name an infrared telescope intended for the Great Observatories Program. More than 7,000 entries were received from people around the world. NASA chose the name Spitzer in honor of the late American physicist Dr. Lyman Spitzer. The winning essay came from a Canadian astronomy buff.

In 2002 NASA held a contest for children to name the planned Mars Rover craft. The contest was held in partnership with The Planetary Society and the Lego Company. A nine-year-old girl from Scottsdale, Arizona, wrote the winning essay, which suggested the names Spirit and Opportunity. Hers was one of nearly 10,000 entries in the contest.

Another public relations gimmick used by NASA is to ask people to submit their names for inclusion on CDs or DVDs carried by spacecraft. Numerous NASA missions conducted since the 1990s have included electronic disks carrying the names of millions of people. In 1999 the Mars Polar Lander carried a CD containing the names of one million schoolchildren from around the world. Unfortunately, the spacecraft was lost before it landed on Mars.

The highly successful Mars Explorer rovers Spirit and Opportunity carried mini-DVDs including the names of more than 3.5 million people. In 2003 and early 2004 hundreds of thousands of people registered their names for inclusion on a CD scheduled to travel aboard the Deep Impact spacecraft to comet Tempel 1. The spacecraft is expected to launch in late 2004 and reach the comet in July 2005.


In September 2003 the Gallup Organization conducted a survey in which 1,025 adults were asked to rate the performance of some prominent government agencies. The participants considered eight agencies and ranked their performance as "excellent," "good," "only fair," or "poor." The results are shown in Figure 9.11. Exactly half of the respondents believe that NASA's performance is "excellent" or "good." This rating placed NASA fourth overall out of the eight agencies considered.

Since 1990 Gallup has asked poll participants to rate NASA's performance as a federal agency. A comparison of these ratings is given in Figure 9.12. The graph shows the percentage of respondents in each poll that rated NASA as performing at an "excellent" or "good" level. The highest rating of 76 percent was recorded in a poll conducted November 22–24, 1998. This was only two weeks after John Glenn's flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery. The next three polls saw NASA's rating slip dramatically, reaching 50 percent in September 2003.

Comparison of Figure 9.12 and Figure 9.5 reveals that the low performance rating of September 1993 coincides with a peak in the number of people wanting to decrease NASA's budget that year. It was one of several tough years for the nation's space program.

NASA's most horrific failures occurred in 1986 and 2003, when space shuttles were lost in accidents. Seven astronauts died each time. Days after each disaster Gallup assessed the public's confidence in NASA's ability to avoid similar accidents in the future. Following the 1986 loss of the space shuttle Challenger, 79 percent of respondents expressed confidence that another shuttle loss could be avoided. When the Columbia shuttle was destroyed during reentry in 2003 this confidence proved to be misplaced. Interestingly enough, the public's confidence level actually increased to 82 percent after the second accident. The numbers suggest that Americans remain optimistic about NASA's competency.

In August 2003 Gallup surveyed 1,003 adults regarding their expectations about the risks associated with the space shuttle program. As shown in Figure 9.13 most respondents (43 percent) felt that a fatal crash every 100 missions was an "acceptable price to pay" to advance America's space exploration goals. In reality NASA's shuttle program has experienced two crashes during 113 missions. This is an average of one fatal crash every 56.5 missions.

Only 17 percent of those asked expressed the belief that a successful space shuttle program experience no fatal crashes at all. The vast majority (75 percent) appear to accept the loss of human lives as a regrettable, but expected, price to pay to advance the nation's space program.

This viewpoint also appeared in another Gallup poll conducted the day after the Columbia disaster. The vast majority of those asked (94 percent) said they were upset about the accident. However, 71 percent of the poll participants said that a second fatal shuttle accident was not unexpected. Only 28 percent of the respondents were surprised that another shuttle had been lost during their lifetime.


In July 1999 the Gallup organization conducted an extensive poll on space issues to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. One of the questions concerned the number of astronauts who have actually walked on the Moon. Figure 9.14 shows that only 5 percent of those asked correctly answered that twelve different men have walked on the Moon. A vast majority (77 percent) of the respondents guessed too low. Another 11 percent guessed too high, and 7 percent had no opinion.

As shown in Table 9.2, only 50 percent of the people asked in July 1999 correctly named Neil Armstrong as the first person to walk on the Moon. Gallup reports that young people aged 18 to 29 were most likely to give the correct answer, despite the fact that the event occurred before they were born.

Other astronauts receiving votes included John Glenn (13 percent), Alan Shepard (4 percent), and Buzz Aldrin (2 percent). More than a quarter of the people asked (28 percent) could not come up with an answer at all.

Gallup asked the same question back in July 1989 on the twentieth anniversary of the first human lunar landing. At that time only 39 percent of respondents gave the correct answer. The other 61 percent either did not know the answer or gave an incorrect answer.

Over a three-day period in early August 2003 Gallup pollsters asked 534 adults whether there were any U.S. astronauts in space at that time or not. Exactly half of the people contended that there were no U.S. astronauts in space at that time. Another 35 percent believed that U.S. astronauts were in space, while 15 percent had no opinion or did not know.

In reality there was one U.S. astronaut in space at the time. NASA Science Officer Ed Lu was aboard the ISS. The ISS has been continually inhabited by at least one American astronaut since 2000.


In June 1965 the Gallup Organization asked Americans if they would personally go to the Moon if given the chance. Only 13 percent said yes. (See Figure 9.15.) Thirty-four years later Gallup asked the same question and found that 27 percent of respondents would go to the Moon.

Enthusiasm was greater for riding aboard the space shuttle. Three Gallup polls conducted between 1986 and 2003 found consistently that 30–40 percent of those asked wanted to be a passenger on a space shuttle flight. As shown in Figure 9.16 the desire cooled only slightly over time.

99 Jul 13–14 89 Jul 6–9
Neil Armstrong50%39%
John Glenn13
Alan Shepard4
Buzz Aldrin2
No opinion2861**
** Incorrect; don't know
source: Frank Newport, "Do you happen to know who was the first person to walk on the moon?," in Landing a Man on the Moon: The Public's View, The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, July 20, 1999 [Online] [accessed January 12, 2004]

In March 1986 nearly 40 percent of the respondents wanted to ride aboard the space shuttle. This value is surprising, because the poll was conducted less than two months after the Challenger disaster, in which seven astronauts were killed. The 2003 poll occurred only a week after the Columbia shuttle was lost during reentry over the western United States. Again, seven astronauts died. Even in the face of that tragedy, 31 percent of respondents indicated a willingness to fly aboard a space shuttle sometime in the future.

In the 2003 poll the desire to take a shuttle flight varied greatly by gender and age. Figure 9.17 shows that 55 percent of all male respondents under the age of 50 were eager to take the trip. Men older than 50 were less enthusiastic; 31 percent of them expressed a desire to go. Women respondents were even cooler about the idea. Only 21 percent of women younger than 50 and 13 percent of women older than 50 were enthused about taking a space shuttle flight.


Extraterrestrial Life

In 1996 and 1999 the Gallup Organization surveyed people about the possible existence of extraterrestrial (not Earth-related) life. The results are shown in Figure 9.18. Each time a fairly strong majority of poll participants expressed the opinion that some form of life does exist on other planets in the universe. Belief in extraterrestrial life dropped somewhat between 1996 and 1999, dropping from 72 percent to 61 percent.

According to several Gallup polls conducted between 1973 and 1999, Americans are less convinced in the possibility of extraterrestrial human life. (See Figure 9.19.) Only 38 to 51 percent of poll participants agreed that there could be people somewhat like us living elsewhere in the universe. The latest poll, taken in 1999, reflects the greatest skepticism for the idea of extraterrestrial people. For the first time a majority (54 percent) of those asked did not believe that such people exist.


In a March 1999 poll the Gallup Organization asked 535 adults if they believed there is life of some form on Mars. Slightly more than a third (35 percent) expressed optimism that there is life on Mars, while 59 percent did not believe so. Another 6 percent had no opinion.

A few months later in July 1999 Gallup asked 1,061 adults if they would favor or oppose a project to send astronauts to Mars. A slim majority (54 percent) opposed the plan, while 43 percent supported it. These percentages are virtually identical to results obtained when Gallup asked the same question back in 1969.

A Moon Hoax?

One of the most off-beat stories of the Space Age is that the U.S. government faked the Apollo moon landings. In 2001 the Fox television network broadcast a show called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? Guests on the show claimed that the Apollo program never actually put a man on the Moon, but faked the lunar landing for television cameras. The theory continues to be supported on various web sites on the Internet.

Advocates of the hoax theory rely on several key points to support their position. Chief among these are:

  • NASA's moon photographs do not show stars in the background behind the astronauts.
  • The American flag supposedly planted on the Moon by Apollo 11 astronauts is rippling in a breeze, yet there is no atmosphere on the Moon.
  • Humans could not have survived exposure to the intense radiation of the Van Allen belts lying between Earth and the Moon.

In general, NASA ignores the hoax claims and does not address them publicly. The NASA website does include one article of rebuttal titled "The Great Moon Hoax" In it Dr. Tony Phillips addresses questions about moon photographs and the rippling flag. He points out that the exposure on the moon cameras had to be adjusted to tone down the dazzling brightness of the astronauts' sunlit spacesuits. This caused the background stars to be too faint to appear in the photographs. The rippling flag is explained by the wire inserts built into the fabric and by the twisting motion the astronauts used to push the flagpole into the lunar ground.

Phillips notes that Moon rocks are the best evidence that astronauts visited the Moon. There are more than 800 pounds of these rocks and they have been investigated by researchers all over the world. Moon rocks differ greatly in mineral and water content from any rocks found on Earth. They also contain isotopes created by long-term exposure to high-energy cosmic rays on the lunar surface.

Another NASA website addresses the hoax issue concerning the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which are regions of highly energized ionized particles trapped within the geomagnetic fields surrounding Earth. Astronomer Laura Whitlock of the Laboratory for High-Energy astrophysics says that early NASA researchers were also worried about the radiation belts. Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, devised experiments in which bacteria and blood cells were sent aboard unmanned probes into space and returned to Earth. Animal experiments were also performed. ORNL used the resulting data to design special radiation shields for

Yes, staged No No opinion
1999 Jul 13–146%895
1995 Jul 19–20**6%8311
source: "Thinking about the space exploration, do you think the government staged or faked the Apollo moon landing, or don't you feel that way?," in Did Men Really Land on the Moon? The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, February 15, 2001 [Online] [accessed January 12, 2004]

the Apollo spacecraft. The shields utilized materials left over from nuclear testing performed during the 1950s. Whitlock also notes that the Apollo spacecraft traveled so fast that the astronauts were exposed to Van Allen radiation for only a short time.

In its July 1999 survey Gallup asked poll participants their view about a possible moon landing hoax. As shown in table 9.3 the vast majority of those asked (89 percent) did not believe that the government staged the Apollo moon landing. Only 6 percent agreed that the landing was a hoax. Another 5 percent had no opinion. The results closely match those of a poll taken in 1995 by Time, CNN, and Yankelovich Partners, Inc. That poll also found that 6 percent of the people asked believe the moon landing was staged. Most people (83 percent) did not.

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