The end of the shuttle program, in addition to prompting its share of political reactions, was also a cue for pollsters, who used the occasion to seek out the public’s views on a variety of space issues. The responses suggest the public, while generally supporting NASA, is reluctant to let the shuttle go and also not eager to give the agency more money.
On the shuttle, Rasmussen Reports poll from mid-July found that 50% of respondents concluded the shuttle program was worth the expense to taxpayers, versus 27% who didn’t think it had been worth it. A CNN/ORC poll last week also found that half of respondents thought the end of the shuttle program would be “bad” for the US, versus a third who thought it would have no effect and 16% who thought it would be good. An Investor’s Business Daily (IBD)/TIPP poll from last week also found that 56% opposed ending the shuttle.
There’s still interest in human spaceflight and space exploration in the post-shuttle era, though. The Rasmussen poll found that 74% thought it to be at least somewhat important for the US to have a human spaceflight program (73% also supported robotic space exploration), while the IBD/TIPP poll found that 65% thought the US should have a “leading” or “active” role in space exploration. The IBD/TIPP poll, though, noted that 72% didn’t believe the current administration has a “clear plan for space exploration”. The CNN/ORC poll reported that 64% of respondents believe it’s very or fairly important for the US to be ahead of other countries in space exploration, and 75% thought the US should develop its own crewed spacecraft.
Those programs, though, will likely to have to be done with NASA budgets no greater than today’s. The IBD/TIPP poll reported that only 10% of respondents want to increase NASA’s budget; 49% want to keep it at current levels while 28% want to cut it (and an additional 8% want to see the budget cut entirely.) The Rasmussen results were only a little better for NASA advocates: it found 18% who wanted to increase spending on space exploration, versus 40% who want to keep it at current levels and 30% who want to spend less.
There’s also some support for increased reliance on the private sector to support human spaceflight and exploration. The CNN/ORC poll noted that 54% thought that the US should rely more on private companies for human spaceflight, versus 38% who preferred the government. The IBD/TIPP poll found that 59% agreed that “the U.S. could get into space faster, better and more effectively if ‘we get the space program out of Washington and cut out the bureaucracy.’” The Rasmussen poll reported that 38% thought the government should fund “the space program” (without being more specific), while 33% thought that should be the responsibility of the private sector.
As always, there are caveats with these polls: how the survey instrument (questionnaire) is worded can have a major effect on responses. And the language can also be imprecise: when people say, for example, that the private sector should fund the space program, are they referring to everything NASA does or the more visible elements, like human spaceflight? Combined, though, they suggest the public wants the US to remain a leader in space exploration, including human spaceflight; they’re just not willing to spend more money to do so.