The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

STS-107 launch
Some segments of the American population are less supportive of the shuttle program, and NASA in general, than others, according to a recent poll. (credit: NASA/KSC)

The gaps in NASA’s support

It’s long been assumed that support for NASA in the United States is widespread. From a political standpoint, NASA enjoys a degree of bipartisan support (or, perhaps more accurately at times, bipartisan neglect) not seen in many other government agencies. A typical NASA program is less likely to become a political football for one party or the other than programs at the Defense Department, EPA, or even the Department of Education.

Along the same lines, NASA appears to have widespread support from the American people as a whole. While there is a fraction of the public is always critical of the space agency (a fraction that tends to fluctuate depending on NASA’s publicized successes or failures), it’s never seemed obvious that this opposition to NASA is polarized along political, racial, income, or other lines.

Upon closer examination, however, that belief is not necessarily true. In late June and early July Zogby International conducted a poll for the Houston Chronicle regarding the American public’s opinions about NASA, the space shuttle, and other programs the agency is undertaking. The Chronicle published those results in its July 21 issue, focusing on the overall numbers. Those results showed that the American public, in general, remained supportive of NASA despite the Columbia accident and its aftermath. A majority of those polled, though, thought that the shuttle should remain grounded until the space program is redefined in some fashion.

The Chronicle, to its benefit, provided not just a written summary of the poll results, but the full final report submitted by Zogby. The Chronicle also included the “crosstabs”, a detailed breakdown of the poll results, question by question. The crosstabs include data on how different segments of the population—broken down by age, race, gender, education, income, political preference, and more—answered the questions. It’s these data that reveal that NASA’s support, as well as support for space exploration in general, among the American public is not universal.

The age gap

One obvious trend from a simple analysis of the crosstab data is that support for NASA and space exploration varies among age groups, with a significant dropoff among the elderly. Age groups from 18 through 64 gave NASA, on average, a positive approval rating of around 70% (positive here is defined as answering the question “How would you rate the job being done by the space agency, NASA?” with either “excellent” or “good”.) However, that support level dropped to 61.6%for those 65 and over, and 57.6%for those 70 and over. Given a margin of error in the poll of +/- 3.5%, this is a significant decline in support.

This sharp decline among the elderly can be seen in other poll questions. Only 25.4% of those 65 and over thought NASA’s budget should be increased, compared to 40.3% of those aged 50-64. 54.3% of those 65 and over believe the shuttle is too old, compared to about 40% of the younger age groups. They are also more likely to believe that NASA’s manned space program should be ended: 38.9% of those 65 and over, and 44.1% of those 70 and over, agreed to some degree that NASA’s manned space program should end, compared to about 20-25% in the younger age groups.

Support for NASA fell from about 70% for those under age 65 to under 60% for those over age 70.

This lack of support is not based on self-professed ignorance. A total of 92.5% of those 65 and over said they were aware of Columbia’s mission prior to the accident, compared to 78.1% of those aged 18-29. The elderly also believe they follow the shuttle program more closely than the young: 70.7% of those 65 and over said they follow the shuttle very or somewhat closely, compared to 52.2% of those 18-29.

In contrast to the skepticism and lack of support among the elderly, the younger age groups included in the poll often have a strong degree of interest about space exploration. Two-thirds of those in the 18-24 age group somewhat or strongly agreed that the US should return to the Moon in the near future and establish a base there; only one-third of those 70 and over responded similarly. Nearly 60% of those 18-24 thought that it was important for the US to be the first to land humans on Mars, compared with 40-45% in the older age groups. Moreover, a third of those in the 18-24 age group thought that a manned mission to Mars would take place within the next five to ten years—an unrealistically optimistic timeline. Chalk it up, perhaps, to youthful exuberance.

Racial differences

In a similar vein, the Zogby crosstabs also revealed some differences in the responses based on race, with African Americans less likely to support NASA and space exploration than whites or Hispanics. A total of 69% of African Americans polled thought that it was somewhat or very important to have a manned space program, compared to 83% of whites and 93% of Hispanics. Correspondingly, 52.2% of African Americans polled somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that NASA should end its manned space program, compared to 21.7% of whites and just 6.8% of Hispanics.

African Americans are more supportive of NASA than other groups, but also more willing to cut the agency’s budget.

Interestingly, African Americans are more supportive of NASA in general than other racial groups: 84.7% of African Americans gave NASA a positive approval rating, compared to 67.9% of whites and 76.8% of Hispanics. Despite this approval rating, though, Africans are more willing to cut NASA’s budget—or terminate it altogether—than other groups. Just over 30% of African Americans thought NASA’s budget should be decreased, compared to 13.5% of whites and 16.4% of Hispanics. In addition, 11.5% of African Americans wanted NASA’s budget cut completely, compared to just 3.7% of whites and none of the Hispanics polled.

The poll numbers suggest that this decreased level of interest in NASA among African Americans may be due to a lack of knowledge of the space agency and its activities. Only 8.9% correctly stated that NASA receives less than one percent of the entire federal budget, while 32.6% thought that NASA got over ten percent of the budget; the responses among whites were almost exactly the opposite. Only 47% of African Americans said they follow the shuttle program very or somewhat closely, compared to 67% for whites and 75% for Hispanics.

page 2: income and education trends >>