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Space Program Gets Positive Reviews From Public

Americans Still Favor Manned Over Unmanned Approach


The U.S. space agency NASA—benefiting from the recent publicity surrounding the shuttle mission of Senator John Glenn—is receiving its most positive evaluations of the decade. Three out of four Americans give the agency high marks for the way it is doing its job, and almost six out of ten feel that the benefits of the space program justify its costs. As the U.S. and Russia begin the long process of building an earth-orbiting space station, a majority of Americans favor maintaining a manned space program rather than concentrating on unmanned missions like Voyager 2.

A November Gallup poll, conducted after the 77 year old Glenn's successful shuttle flight, found that 76% of Americans rate NASA as doing an excellent or good job. These are the most positive numbers on this basic NASA job evaluation since Gallup began asking the question in 1990. NASA's lowest rating, 43%, came in September 1993.

There is also continuing public sentiment that the space program's benefits outweigh its costs. When asked directly if the space program has brought enough benefits to justify its costs, 58% of Americans say yes. Twenty years ago, in response to the same question, the positive responses were significantly fewer, with more Americans saying that the benefits were not worth the costs than said they were.

The Manned Versus Unmanned Controversy
Over the years, NASA's emphasis on a manned space program has generated controversy, with critics arguing that a reliance on unmanned missions and probes would provide a more cost-efficient scientific return on taxpayer dollars than does the more costly manned program. Despite these arguments, the American public agrees that the manned approach is worthwhile, by a 52% to 32% margin. This marks a significant change from nine years ago, when almost as many of those interviewed came down in favor of the unmanned program as the manned program.

Compared with Social Programs, Space Has Lower Priority
Despite the overall positive public evaluations NASA receives, it is clear that space has a much lower priority for most Americans than other programs on which federal tax dollars could be spent. Respondents were asked about their views on federal funding for four different programs: space, improving medical and health care, providing food programs for low income families and spending on federal programs to improve the quality of public education.

The public strongly supports increased federal spending on education and health care (three-quarters say that funding for these programs should be increased). There is mixed sentiment about food programs, with about as many of those polled (42%) saying that spending should stay the same as saying it should be increased (44%).

The views on increased spending on the space program are relatively more negative. Only 21% of Americans want it increased, 47% want it to stay the same, and 26% want it reduced. These numbers are slightly more positive than in 1993, but roughly the same as those of earlier Gallup surveys conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,015 adults, 18 years and older, conducted November 20-22 1998. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be as much as plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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
November 20-22 26% 50 17 4 3
98 Jan 30-Feb 1 21% 46 21 4 8
94 Jul 15-17 14% 43 29 6 8
93 Dec 18% 43 30 7 2
93 Sep 7% 36 35 11 11
91 May 16% 48 24 6 6
90 Jul 10% 36 34 15 5
Some people feel that the U.S. space program should concentrate on unmanned missions like Voyager 2, which sent back information from planets such as Neptune. Others say we should concentrate on maintaining a manned space program like the space shuttle and space station. Which comes closer to your view?
  Unmanned missions Manned missions Neither/both (vol.) No opinion
98 Nov 32% 52 10 6
91 May 39% 49 * 12
90 Jul 34% 48 6 12
89 Jul 40% 43 9 8
* Less than 0.5%
It is now almost thirty years since the United States first landed men on the moon. Do you think the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs, or don't you think so?
  Yes, brought enough benefits No, doesn't justify its costs No opinion
98 Nov 20-22 58% 36 6
94 Jul 15-17 47% 47 6
1979** 41% 53 6
** NBC News/AP

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