Mixed messages

Last month I noted a recent poll that showed how willing the public would be to cut NASA funding versus other federal programs, which appeared to be more evidence of just how low a priority the space program is in the eyes of the general public. However, a new Zogby survey, conducted in mid-March and released late last week, offers a different opinion. According to that poll, 71 percent oppose “any cut” in the NASA budget, with one in three advocating an increase in the budget. The Zogby release also notes that 49 percent of respondents give NASA a positive “job approval” rating, and 80 percent see having a space program as critical to national prestige.

The May issue of Real America, Zogby’s monthly newsletter, has more details about the poll. (The eight-page newsletter, published as a series of low-resolution graphics files rather than as an HTML or PDF document, costs $5.95 an issue.) The survey found that 64 percent were concerned that other nations might “place military weapons in orbit”, and that 55 percent would support “U.S. action to stop other nations from militarizing space”. (Not specifying what sort of “action” respondents had in mind, nor that space has been militarized by the US and others for decades, just not weaponized.) The poll adds that 36 percent of Americas favor “a consortium of spacefaring nations governing space”, compared to the 5 percent who said the US alone should “govern” space.

So what to make of these figures? While space advocates might be heartened to see considerable public interest in space, without seeing the survey instrument—the specific questions and answer choices given to respondents—it’s difficult to gauge their significance. Certainly, the choice of some of the questions, such as those about the space weaponization (the newsletter makes reference to concerns about space becoming “a 100-mile high platform for dropping bombs”, not the usual concern regarding weaponization) and governance suggest a lack of sophistication. (I noted on Personal Spaceflight something similar about aspects of the poll dealing with space tourism.) Elsewhere, 54 percent of respondents said that NASA’s plans to return to the Moon should be a “high” priority (and 63 percent believed NASA would achieve that goal), but only 13 percent believed that establishing a lunar base should be NASA’s “top” priority.

But there’s that bigger contradiction: why do nearly half of respondents in one poll select the “space program” as the one that should be among the first to see its budget cut, while in another a third state that NASA’s budget should be increased? Both the Zogby poll and the earlier Harris poll were conducted at around the same time, and both done online with relatively large sample sizes: over 2,200 in the Harris poll and over 4,800 in the Zogby poll. What it does suggest is that the responses may be very strongly dependent on how the survey instrument is worded, which in turn argues that what opinions Americans hold about NASA and space exploration aren’t held very strongly.

12 comments to Mixed messages

  • Allen Thomson

    > the responses may be very strongly dependent on how the survey instrument is worded

    Ya think? I doubt that it’s even possible to word a survey asking the general population about space or stem cell research or many other things that wouldn’t strongly pre-condition the response.

  • MarkWhittington

    Another factor might be sampling. Harris is somewhat nortorious for oversampling Democrats. Since it seems to be an anomaly among other polls which show greatest support for space, it might well be best to discount it.

  • Jeff Foust

    Allen: true enough, although it’s not clear whether any such pre-conditioning was accidental or deliberate. There’s no indication in the press release that the poll was performed for a specific organization, which would serve as a potential tipoff regarding the slant of the results.

    Mark: Remember that the Harris Interactive poll results included splits by political party (including independents): among Republicans the space program was the most common response when asked what program they would cut, in a statistical tie with welfare—a program that’s hardly been popular with the GOP over the years.

  • Earl Blake

    Support for NASA is usualy 10 miles wide but only an inch deep. When push comes to shove NASA usualy gets the short end of the stick.
    I’d like to see a survay where subjects are given $100 and a list of federal bugetary items to allowcate that money to. I wonder if NASA would get the 70 cents it gets now?

  • Al Fansome

    FOUST: But there’s that bigger contradiction: why do nearly half of respondents in one poll select the “space program” as the one that should be among the first to see its budget cut, while in another a third state that NASA’s budget should be increased?

    I agree with Mr. Blake. This seemingly conflicting results are created by the mile wide, but inch deep support.

    The majority of Americans repeteadly say they support NASA funding, but if you take the same people and force them to make choices between NASA and other federal funding priorities, and in balancing the federal budget, (which is the choice that our elected leaders have to make) then NASA loses out.

    The question that puzzles me is why people keep spending money on polls that rarely tell you anything new.

    One interesting poll might be to poll test out various strategies that buy you different benefits. If one approach is technologically more difficult, but gives you much more national security and economic benefits, for example by helping to create an industry that allows many more private citizens to visit space, what would people say?

    – Al

  • MarkWhittington

    Earl – Under that experiment I suspect NASA would get more, mainly because a lot of people think NASA gets a *lot* more than 70 cents,

  • kert

    the honest benchmark of support for space development would be to ask: what are the tree most important things to do to guarantee mankind survival for next coming century or two, i.e. your grand-grandchildren ? If that question would be posed without predefined answers and one out of ten thousand respondents would respond with “becoming multiplanet species” i’d be impressed. The actual sampling of answers by average Joe’s would be a fun read too..

    Of course, this is not directly relevant to NASA funding, as NASA’s current contribution for actually becoming multiplanet species is almost, but not quite zero.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Other then the hometown politicans…NASA human spaceflight funding could be zeroed out and not a single politican would pay a political price for it.

    Real Americans dont care about human spaceflight…Nowak provides entertainment.


  • kert

    guarantee mankind survival
    oops, if that would be amended to “survival of American values and ways of life” the answers would get even funnier, and further apart from space.

  • There is an issue that has just cropped up that could help human spaceflight immensely : global warming. But we know the help won’t be VSE and ESAS.


  • Roger Clandon

    Interesting follow up on UP Aerospace’s launch from Spaceport America on April 28: Seems that at the last minute, the new Spaceport Director, Rick Homans (formally the NM Secretary of Economic Development)got a little nervous about the launch and decided to move the aim point 5 miles to the west (because safety is number one). Jerry Larson, President of UP Aerospace, was against the move but was told to either move it or don’t launch. As a result, the payload is now in the mountains west of the range and has yet to be recovered (almost two weeks later). The place where they think it came down is less than two miles from flat open land – Thanks a lot Rick. Next time just shut up and color and let technical people make the technical decisions, you moron! Yet another reason why we have to get spaceflight out of the hands of beaurocrats.

  • […] than two-thirds and slightly more than three-fourths of the general population. But as noted here, there are mixed messages about just how strongly the public supports NASA, with some polls suggesting that space should be first on the chopping block, That’s a sign […]

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