May 11 2008

Public Opinion — A Brief 21stCenturyWaves Perspective

Public opinion is a major driver for any large U.S. space program and will likely launch the next race to space within 5 to 10 years. At 21stCenturyWaves.com the Public Opinion Wave Guide is separated from Politics (Wave Guide 3) because public opinion is not always rapidly reflected in political decisions due to economic, political, and/or international events.

While public opinion polls provide direct responses to specific questions from a scientific sample, they are regarded as suspect by some because results often depend on the precise wording of questions and other factors. An excellent example is Roger Launius writing in Space Policy in 2003, “A human Mars mission has never enjoyed much support from the American people,” who then quotes polls between 1969 and 1999 that show public support hovering near or below 40%. Compare this with a statement by Alex Kirk in 2004 (published by The Mars Society), “..the public seems to be in agreement that, generally speaking, sending humans to Mars is a good idea.” He quotes a 1996 survey by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut that 67% support human Mars missions, and a 1988 survey by Time magazine who found 71% did.

On the other hand, almost everyone finds that Americans like the idea of international cooperation in space, especially with the Russians. Public views of space also seem to be influenced by popular culture (especially cinema and television); e.g., the movie Apollo 13 in 1995 which apparently elevated opinion polls about the importance of the space program by 13 % according to Yankelovich analysts in polls conducted for Boeing between 1978 and 1997. For this reason we devote an entire Wave Guide (# 10) to the monitoring of trends in pop culture and entertainment.

On the basis of public opinion polls Launius claims that popular support for Apollo was not as high during the 1960s as typically assumed. He points to polls during the 1960s asking if the federal government should fund human trips to the Moon that never rose above 45% approval and usually slouched near 40%. In fact, in 1965 one third of the country favored reducing NASA’s budget, and by 1969 — the year of the first human landing on the Moon — that percent had increased to 40% (it skyrocketed to 55% in 1975!). This suggests that popular support for Apollo started to erode almost as soon as the program was established, and supports the notion that Maslow Windows can flourish for up to a decade but then rapidly decline.

Based on the history of the 1960s, Launius concludes that in the future, a large-scale space program like Apollo will only be initiated if it, “serves a larger political, economic, or national defense agenda.” This is consistent with a key forecast of 21stCenturyWaves.com that another Sputnik-like international shock near 2013 will stimulate the American people and its leaders into the next race for space. Future Wave Guide 2 posts will evaluate evidence for evolving public interest in space and related arenas.

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