Nov 07 2011

State of the Wave: The Economy is Down but Space is Up

As we approach the next transformative Maslow Window featuring a new international Space Age — expected mid-decade — it’s revealing to compare public perceptions of the economy, on which the space program depends, and the space program itself. In the midst of a painfully slow recovery that’s only a few years downstream from the Panic of 2008, and the great recession of 2008-10+, we might expect these circumstances to dampen people’s spirits regarding human expansion into the cosmos.

Are Americans still interested in human expansion into the cosmos…JFK-style?

The Economy is Down
For example, official unemployment continues at 9% or above, and the outlook is not good because only 80,000 jobs were added in October which is far short of the number needed to substantially reduce unemployment (>150,000 per month). And Fed Chair Ben Bernanke recently lowered its jobs forecast to 8.6% in late 2012 (Wall Street Journal, 11/3/11), assuming the European debt crisis stabilizes and there is no double-dip (nearly 40% of participants think one will occur).

On Halloween the Wall Street Journal noted that the “Slow recovery feels like a recession,” partly because median household income in the U.S. fell 6.7% from June, 2009 to June, 2011, and also that:

No recession since the Great Depression was deeper or longer than the most recent.

And in June, CNBC reported that the U.S. housing crisis, which already entered a double-dip, “is now worse than the Great Depression.”

In his most recent poll of likely voters in the U.S., Rasmussen reports that only 17% of the country feels things are going in the right direction, while a 76% think we’re on the wrong track. According to Peggy Noonan (Wall Street Journal, 10/8/11),

We are in a remarkable moment and I’m not sure we’re noticing it in the day-to-day of politics and media … I wrote of the new patriotism that I see taking hold of the American establishment …

What’s behind it is fear. The economy is tanking and can take a whole world with it … They all agree—no one really argues about this anymore—the government is going bankrupt.

But Space is Up
The U.S. manned space program — which in 1969 delivered the first humans to the Moon — continues to be directionless. For example, it has no specific goal (Moon, Mars, asteroids), although an expensive Shuttle-derived heavy launch vehicle (the Space Launch System, SLS) is planned by NASA for first human flights in 2019. Others have suggested a propellant depot would be more viable economically and politically. To add to this disarray, the Mars Society reports today that OMB has zeroed out future Mars exploration programs after the MAVEN orbiter in 2013; e.g., the joint Mars missions with Europe in 2016 and 2018 would be canceled.

In this time of economic and program distress, it’s interesting to see how the public is thinking about our future in space.

The Shuttle
Last month 52% of American adults surveyed said the Space Shuttle has been worth the expense to taxpayers (, 10/5/11). This is particularly interesting when compared to public support of Apollo. According to Roger Launius, 1960s opinion polls reveal only one year between 1962 and 1972 when more than 50% of people surveyed felt Apollo was worth the cost: 1969 (53%); indeed only two other years were above 40% (1965 and 1970).

Considering that the recent Shuttle poll comes during a time of economic distress while the Apollo polls (especially during the early 1960s) were during the major JFK economic boom, it suggests that Americans remain proud of and committed to manned space.

U.S. Leadership in Space
In july, 2011 a CNN/ORC International Poll asked, “How important do you think it is for the United States to be ahead of Russia and other countries in space exploration?” The replies were: Very important: 38%; Fairly important: 26%; Not too important: 36%; No Opinion: 1 %.

The fact that 64% of Americans currently believe that U.S. leadership in space is either fairly or very important — even during this economic distress — suggests that there will be significant support for space during the upcoming 2015 Maslow Window.

JFK vs. Obama
In July, 2011 a Fox News poll asked, “Who do you think had the right idea on the importance of space exploration–President (John F.) Kennedy or President (Barack) Obama? The replies were: JFK: 63%; Obama: 13%; Undecided: 24%.

This suggests that Americans are still interested in bold human space adventures and will be stimulated by the upcoming intrernational Space Age.

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