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Public Opinion About Space Exploration - America Rates Nasa's Performance

shuttle gallup program poll

During 2005 Gallup asked Americans to rate the job being done by NASA as excellent, good, fair, or poor. Polls were conducted before and after the successful mission of the space shuttle Discovery on its first "return to flight." The results are shown in Table 9.2. Prior to the Discovery mission 53% of those asked rated NASA's performance as good or excellent. This percentage increased to 60% after the mission.

Gallup has asked this same question about NASA's performance in many polls conducted since 1990. As shown in Table 9.2, there have been a number of peaks and valleys in the percentage of people rating the agency as "excellent" or "good." The highest approval (76%) 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% in September 2003. This was a few months after the Columbia shuttle disaster. NASA's image has improved slightly since that time.

FIGURE 9.5 Public opinion poll on continuing the manned space program, 1986 and 2003 Adapted from Frank Newport, "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?" in Americans Want Space Shuttle Program to Go On, The Gallup Organization, February 3, 2003, http://poll.gallup.com/content/default.aspx?ci=7708&pg=1 (accessed January 31, 2006). Copyright © 2003 by The Gallup Organization. Reproduced by permission of The Gallup Organization.

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% 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% after the second accident. The numbers suggest that Americans remain optimistic about NASA's competency in regards to the space shuttle program.

In August 2003 Gallup surveyed 1,003 adults regarding their expectations about the risks associated with the space shuttle program. Most respondents (43%) believed 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 114 missions. This is an average of one fatal crash every fifty-seven missions.

TABLE 9.2 Public opinion poll on the performance of NASA, selected years 1990–2005 Frank Newport, "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?" in Space Shuttle Program a "Go" for Americans, The Gallup Organization, August 10, 2005, http://poll.gallup.com/content/default.aspx?ci=17761&pg=1 (accessed February 4, 2006). Copyright © 2005 by The Gallup Organization. Reproduced by permission of The Gallup Organization.

TABLE 9.2
Public opinion poll on the performance of NASA, selected years 1990–2005
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
SOURCE: Frank Newport, "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?" in Space Shuttle Program a "Go" for Americans, The Gallup Organization, August 10, 2005, http://poll.gallup.com/content/default.aspx?ci=17761&pg=1 (accessed February 4, 2006). Copyright © 2005 by The Gallup Organization. Reproduced by permission of The Gallup Organization.
% % % % %
2005 Aug 5-7 16 44 29 8 3
2005 Jun 24-26 11 42 34 6 7
2003 Sep 8-10 12 38 36 10 4
1999 Dec 9-12 13 40 31 12 4
1999 Jul 13-4 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

Seventeen percent of those asked expressed the belief that a successful space shuttle program should experience no fatal crashes at all. The vast majority (75%) 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%) said they were upset about the accident. However, 71% of the poll participants said that a second fatal shuttle accident was not unexpected. More than one-quarter of those surveyed (28%) were surprised that another shuttle had been lost during their lifetime.

Recent polls show support may be waning for the space shuttle program. Soon after the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters the Gallup Organization polled 462 adults about their opinions on shuttle missions. More than 80% of the people asked in each poll thought the space shuttle program should continue. The same question was asked in June 2005 (before the first return-to-flight mission). Nearly three-quarters of those asked (74%) said the space shuttle program should continue, while 21% said the program should not continue.

A CBS News poll conducted in August 2005 during the shuttle return-to-flight mission found that support for the space shuttle program was down compared to years past ("Poll: Public up in Air on Shuttle," August 3, 2005, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/08/03/opinion/polls/main713808.shtml). The 2005 poll indicated that 59% of respondents thought the space shuttle program was worth continuing. This value was down from 75% in 2003 and 72% in 1999.

In August 2005 during Discovery's return-to-flight mission, Gallup pollsters asked Americans how confident they were that NASA could make the space shuttle safe to fly on future missions. The results indicated that a large majority (83%) were "very confident" or "somewhat confident." Another 13% were "not too confident" and 3% were "not at all confident."

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