The gaps in NASA’s support
Income and education trends
Breakdown in poll responses by income and education groups also show some interesting trends. (The breakdowns by income and educations have, at least qualitatively, some degree of correlation, since better-educated people tend to have higher incomes.) The fraction of people who want to see NASA’s budget increased, for example, rose from 25% for those with less that a high school education to 37.8% for those with at least a college degree; those wanting to see NASA’s budget cut shows a trend in the opposite direction. Awareness of Columbia’s mission prior to the accident also increased with one’s income and education levels.
Lower-income and less-educated people also tend to be more skeptical of the shuttle program and manned spaceflight in general. Over 61% of those with less than a high school education thought the shuttle was too old to fly, compared to 33% of those with at least a college degree. A total of 28% of those making less than $15,000 a year thought the US should end its manned spaceflight program, compared to only 11% of those making over $75,000 a year. Nearly 70% of those in that lowest income group thought that the shuttle program should not resume “until the future of the space program had been re-defined”, according to the poll question; only 43.8% of those in the highest income bracket concurred.
Implications for space tourism
The Zogby poll primarily focused on NASA, covering the shuttle and other programs in considerably detail. One question, though, did address the issue of private citizens flying in space, although the question was worded vaguely enough to make it unclear whether it was referring to private citizens on the shuttle or private spaceflight in general:
Statement A: Putting civilians—like teachers, politicians, and paying tourists—into space is a good idea because it generates public interest, helps to create awareness of the space program in our children, and should be open to all Americans. Statement B: Putting civilians into space is a bad idea because of the costs involved in the additional training and the dangers involved. Space travel should only involve highly trained and highly skilled professionals.
Respondents were asked to select the statement that they more strongly agreed with. Overall, nearly two-thirds—64.5%—picked statement B. The trends in age and race seen earlier in the NASA questions were not as clear here, with similar results among most age and racial groups. The elderly and African Americans were more likely to agree with statement B than other age and racial groups, but the distinction wasn’t as strong as in other questions. For example, 77% of those over age 70 selected statement B, compared to 75.2% of those aged 18-24.
A stronger trend does emerge in the various income and education groups. Support for statement A (the pro-tourism statement) increased from 24.4% among those making less than $15,000 a year to over 37% for those making $35,000 and up. Likewise, support for statement among education groups showed an increase from just under 20% for those with less than a high school education to 36.9% for those with at least a college degree.
As noted earlier, the question is so vaguely worded it is not clear whether the poll was referring solely to non-professionals flying on the shuttle or tourists and other paying passengers flying on commercial spacecraft. (The poll did not test the awareness of respondents to commercial spaceflight initiatives like the X Prize, so it’s possible a large fraction of those polled may be unaware of any near-future commercial alternatives to the shuttle.) Nonetheless, the poll should raise some concerns among supports of public space travel about the support they will receive from the general public.
What does it mean?
With these data (and others that can be extracted from the crosstabs), it is tempting to try and guess why certain groups of people are less favorably disposed than others to human space exploration in general and NASA in particular. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do that with any degree of accuracy given the poll data alone. There may be additional correlations (such as between age and income groups, or racial and education groups) that may make it more difficult to draw general conclusions. In addition, we only know from the poll results how these people feel about NASA; it’s possible, for example, that the groups that scored NASA poorly may have similarly low opinions of other government agencies.
What is clear, though, from these results is that NASA’s support among the various groups that comprise the American public is not universal, even if the reasons for drops in support among some groups may differ. This varied support may have little impact on any future space agency initiatives, given that space is rarely a major issue for voters. Nonetheless, NASA, the Administration, and Congress need to be aware of these gaps in support and be prepared to address them should they prove a stumbling block to any future ventures.