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Confidence in NASA Slips After Failed Mars Missions

Confidence in NASA Slips After Failed Mars Missions

Public still supports more attempts to study Mars

by Mark Gillespie


PRINCETON, NJ -- As NASA engineers search for the cause of problems that doomed the space agency's latest attempts to study the surface of Mars, a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll finds the American public's confidence in NASA has slipped. Slightly over half of those polled (53%) between December 9-12, 1999 rate the job NASA is doing as either excellent or good, while the percentage who rate it more negatively, as either fair or poor, has risen to 43%. By way of comparison, when last asked this question in July -- coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing -- 64% of Americans rated NASA's performance in positive terms, and only 25% believed it was doing less than a good job.

NASA's Ratings Splash Down Following Glenn's Mission
To put the above ratings into perspective, it should be noted that NASA's highest positive rating in this decade came in 1998, when the country was focused on Sen. John Glenn's historic return to space during a Space Shuttle mission. At that time, 76% of Americans gave NASA's job performance a positive rating, while just 21% rated it fair or poor.

The Glenn mission helped give the space agency a much-needed boost in the eyes of the public. It should be noted that mission failures, for obvious reasons, have a tendency to erode the public's confidence in the space agency. In 1993, NASA's positive rating slipped to 43% in the wake of another failed mission to Mars -- the lowest rating this decade.

Public Split on Funding for NASA
While NASA's job performance rating fell between July and October, there is no significant change in support for funding of the space agency. In July, 18% of Americans supported an increase in the NASA budget, compared to 16% in the most recent poll. There is no change in the 34% of Americans who would prefer to cut the space budget, while 49% of those polled would keep NASA's budget as is -- statistically similar to the 45% recorded in July. Interestingly, Republicans tend to support increases in the NASA budget slightly more than Democrats (19% to 11%)

The good news from this poll for NASA is that despite the decline in its job performance rating, there remains a solid base of support for continuing the exploration of Mars. A majority of those surveyed in the December 9-12 poll (56%) believe the government should continue to fund Mars missions, while 40% would prefer to stop funding them altogether. This support is higher among those with higher levels of education: 75% of college graduates support funding unmanned missions to Mars, compared to 42% of those with high school education or less.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,037 adults, 18 years and older, conducted December 9-12, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is 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
  % % % % %
1999 Dec 9-12 13 40 31 12 4
1999 Jul 13-14 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 18 43 30 7 2
1993 Sept 7 36 35 11 11
1991 May 16 48 24 6 6
1990 July 10 36 34 15 5

Now I'd like to ask you about government spending on NASA. In answering, please bear in mind that sooner or later all government spending has to be taken care of out of the taxes that you and other Americans pay. Do you think spending on the U.S. space program should be increased, kept at the present level, reduced or ended altogether?


  Increased Kept at the present level Reduced Ended altogether No opinion
  % % % % %
1999 Dec 9-12 16 49 24 10 1
99 Jul 13-14 18 45 26 8 3
98 Nov 20-22 21 47 26 4 2
93 Dec 11 42 38 8 1
93 Sep 9 37 41 10 3
91 May 2-5 21 44 28 3 4
1989 27 42 22 4 5
1986 26 50 14 5 5
1984 21 48 23 4 4

Do you think the federal government should or should not continue to fund efforts by NASA to send unmanned missions to explore the planet Mars?


Should continue to fund 56%
Should not continue to fund 40
No opinion 4

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