Public support for Space Exploration, from the General Social Survey
One of the stablest, long term and most quality-controlled indicators of public sentiment towards government spending on different issues is the General Social Survey. Now run biannually, the GSS offers a long term baseline of perception trends that may be far more instructive than sensational “point” polls.
One of a series of questions in the GSS address social problem spending areas including the environment, health, big city problems, crime, drug addiction, education, etc. Within the spending list is a question on “space exploration”. The primary question variant for this runs:
We are faced with many problems in this country, none of
which can be solved easily or inexpensively. I’m going to name
some of these problems, and for each one I’d like you to tell me
whether you think we’re spending too much money on it, too
little money, or about the right amount. a. Space exploration
In addition to the 1972-2008 GSS data, I have added three similar data points reported in Roger Launius’ blog from 1965, 1969 and 1971. While not strictly interchangeable, they are likely consistent with trends during this period. Note that in recent years, I have also interpolated the biannual data to show smooth trend evolution.
Aside from the strong fluctuations in negative opinion (“too much” spending) after the first Apollo missions, the most notable trend is a fairly steady reduction in negative opinion since a 50% peak in 1993-1994. Since 2004, negative opinion has steadily declined from 39% to 35% – the lowest amount since post-Challenger Shuttle Return to Flight in 1988-1989. Unfortunately, positive opinion (“too little”) has also slightly diminished since 2004, leaving a net increase in ambivalence (“about right”).
Another view of trends in support comes from subtracting year-to-year changes in “too much” from year-to-year changes in “too little” (i.e., increases in advocacy, less increases in opposition, and treating “about right” as ambivalents):
Here, the impacts of Challenger (1986-1987) and Return to Flight (1987-1988) are striking, as are, perhaps, the impacts of events such as the flawed Hubble optics (1990), and the very public battles over Space Station Freedom’s evolution to the International Space Station (1993). Here also is shown the very, very slow but steady gains in public opinion from 1999 through 2008 (ten years of continually improving support, through 2008). It remains to be seen (2011 at the earliest, with preliminary release of 2010 GSS data) how the era of commercial space, as well as anticipated rises in public sentiment against government spending, will impact support for space exploration.