In 1959, 52% of respondents to a Gallup poll were optimistic about space travel, saying that man would reach the moon in 20 years, while nearly four in 10 said it wouldn't happen. Even though about half of all Americans were skeptical about the possibility, they liked the idea of trying. In another Gallup survey taken before President John F. Kennedy called on the nation in May 1961 to commit ourselves "to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth," 65% said they approved of U.S. attempts to send a man to the moon, while 20% said they didn't.
Americans accomplished this feat 40 years ago Monday. Whatever the sentiment before the moon landing, the milestone has been a source of pride ever since. In a new poll from the Pew Research Center, when Americans were asked to identify America's greatest scientific achievement over the past 50 years, more people spontaneously responded "the space program/landing on the moon" than any other event.
Our enthusiasm has survived serious setbacks. After the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, 80% of Americans polled said they wanted the shuttle program continued anyway--and 56% told Gallup pollsters in 1999 that, although the mission to put a lander on Mars failed, the federal government should continue to fund efforts to send unmanned missions to Mars. Even following the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, 82% of Americans polled wanted to continue the program.
Although pollsters don't ask the public questions about NASA very often, the agency gets high marks. This tends to be true of government entities whose missions are clearly and narrowly defined. For example, despite numerous scandals, the military gets high marks from Americans because it performs its mission well and deals with its own problems effectively. Despite the tragedies that have befallen NASA, 56% of respondents to a 2007 poll gave the agency an excellent or good rating. Only 8% gave it a poor one.
In his 1961 speech, Kennedy said space achievement could hold "the key to our future on earth." When Harris specified a dollar price for the space program in one question on a poll in 1970--"$4 billion a year for the next 10 years--only 30% of people surveyed said it was worth it, while 64% did not. But when answering broader Harris questions about the space shuttle, some of which did not cite a specific monetary value, more people, around 60%, said that it has been worth its costs.
Understandably, Americans have generally been more enthusiastic about the idea of space exploration than about actual spending on the space program. Since 1972, the highly respected National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has asked Americans whether we are spending too much, too little or about the right amount on the space exploration program. In NORC's most recent results, from 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008, pluralities said we were spending about the right amount. Of the remainder, more (around 35%) said we were spending too much than said we're spending too little (around 10%).
Other polls, such as a 2006 one from Gallup and an earlier one from Zogby International, find that only around 10% want to cancel the program altogether. In the Zogby polls, a significant portion of respondents, around a third, wanted to fund space exploration "no matter what the costs."
As for traveling to outer space, most Americans are dubious. In a Gallup poll from 1966, 18% said they would like to go along on the first rocket trip to the moon, but 82% said they wouldn't. In a CBS News question from 2004, 39% said they would travel to outer space if they had a chance to do so in their lifetime, but 60% said they would not. There is a large gender gap on the questions, with women being less inclined to take off than men. In 2004, nearly half on the men surveyed, 49%, said they would travel in outer space; just 28% of women said they would.
Back in 1969, both government investment and public support made the quarter-million-mile lunar journey possible, enabling the United States, in Kennedy's words, to "take a clearly leading role in space achievement." Based on many Americans' expressions of frontier spirit today, that's a role we could still play.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.