American Enthusiasm
for Spaceflight

by William Sims Bainbridge
and Richard Wyckoff

ANALOG, Volume XCIX, Number 7
July 1979, pages 59-72.

All great human enterprises are primarily social. The space program is no exception. It could not exist without social support, without the enthusiasm of national leaders and the acceptance of the general public. Great technical advances would be impossible if there were no one willing to pay for them. To use the metaphor of war: The attempt to conquer space will be won or lost on the home front. The Second World War was decided as much in the factories as on the battlefields; the Vietnam War was a disaster of the spirit, not a failure of technology. This article examines the quality of support given the space program by citizens of the United States. We not only report the general level of enthusiasm for spaceflight among the American public, but go beyond this superficial question to probe opinions on specific aspects of the space program. In doing this, we develop and analyze a coherent set of justifications for the space program -- the Ideology of Spaceflight.

The best place to start is at the economic basis for the program. Figure 1 shows the appropriations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the years 1960-1977. There are other space-related, budgets, of course. This graph ignores American military space expenditures as well as programs of the Soviet Union and other nations. But NASA carries out many of the most future-oriented projects, so its vitality is a good indicator of the general health of space agencies. The graph gives not only the appropriations for each year, but also the real wealth in 1960 dollars, adjusted for inflation in the consumer price index.

Figure 1: NASA Funding, 1960-1977

This graph shows the great leap in NASA appropriations during the early 1960s, and the gradual decline that followed. The solid line represents the dollar appropriations for each year. The dashed line corrects for inflation and shows the actual wealth invested.

Figure 1 tells a familiar and frustrating story. NASA funding leaps upward in the early 1960s, reaching a peak of $4,906,500,000 for 1965, then gradually staggers down again. Although it appears that funding has been rising again since 1974, really it has been just holding steady, and increased dollar appropriations have merely offset inflation. Another way of looking at NASA appropriations is in terms of the percent of the Gross National Product invested. The peak year in terms of GNP was 1964, when NASA took 0.8 percent of the total goods and services produced. For 1977, only 0.2 percent of the GNP went to NASA, making it the lowest year since 1961. This fifth of a percent represented an average of only seventeen dollars from each citizen.

Another indicator of support for spaceflight can be found in congressional voting patterns. An average of 374 members of the House of Representatives participated in the final vote on NASA appropriations for the fifteen years 1962-1976. Eighty-five percent voted in favor of the NASA bill, in a typical year. Of course, the funding request from NASA passes through the executive branch and various congressional committees before it comes to a vote on the floor of the House, so the 85 percent figure expresses satisfaction with the trends in space funding, rather than a desire to increase appropriations.

When we analyzed voting patterns, we were surprised to find that Democrats were more supportive than Republicans. On the average, 89 percent of the Democrats voted in favor, as opposed to 80 percent for the Republicans. There is a slight downward trend in the over-all figures. The "yea" votes dropped from 90 percent for 1962-1968 to 83 percent for 1970-1976. Does this mean that House members wanted NASA appropriations to drop even lower than they have? Not necessarily. Political factors unrelated to spaceflight may be at work. Representatives whose party holds the White House tend to vote with their president, while the other party is more likely to vote against him, and NASA funding requests come to the House from the Administration. In the first half of the fifteen-year period, Kennedy and Johnson held the White House, followed by the Nixon-Ford years. Under Democratic presidents, the Democrats gave an amazing 99 percent "yea" vote, which dropped to 82 percent under Nixon and Ford. The Republicans gave only a 77 percent "yea" vote for 1962-1968, which rose to 82 percent for 1970-1976. Since Democrats outnumber Republicans, their votes dominate the over-all pattern. Thus, the apparent decline in space voting may just represent the change in administrations. Congress seems satisfied with the trend in NASA funding, including the current steady level of appropriations.

According to competing theories of our government, the Congress either leads or follows public opinion. Whichever theory is correct, the attitudes of ordinary Americans can tell us much about the nature and sources of support for spaceflight.

The American public is not very enthusiastic about the space program. After the profound shock of Sputnik, U.S. citizens quickly returned to a mood of indifference concerning space exploration. In 1969, the year of Apollo 11, the Gallup Poll asked a national sample of 1500 adults what should be done with space funding. Only 15 percent wanted appropriations increased, while 43 percent said funding should be kept at a constant level, and 42 percent wanted investment in space reduced. For the past five years, the National Opinion Research Center has included a similar question in its annual survey. In 1977, 10.7 percent of the 1440 Americans who answered felt that "too little" was currently being spent on the space exploration program." Another 36.6 percent felt the level of funding was "about right," while fully 52.7 percent felt that "too much" was being spent on space.

It is hard to find an optimistic way of looking at these figures. In 1969, a majority of people wanted space funding maintained at current levels, or even increased. But the 1977 survey shows a clear majority in favor of cutting back funding. Of course, many Americans resent the heavy taxes they are forced to pay. About 70 percent of the respondents to the 1977 survey said federal income taxes were too high, so perhaps the lack of support for an expanded space program merely reflects antagonism to government spending of any kind. How does the public feel about other government expenditures?

Unfortunately for space progress, the public is far more enthusiastic about programs that promise immediate benefits to the average person. Consequently, resentment over high taxes may cause reductions in programs like space exploration which do not seem to meet pressing needs. The 1977 survey asked respondents their opinions of eleven different government programs, and only one proved less popular than space exploration. Figure 2 shows the percent of citizens in favor of expanding each of the programs. There was much concern over widespread social problems, such as the rising crime rate, drug addiction, and the problems of the big cities. Respondents were also interested in improving the quality of life in America, bettering the nation's health, the environment; and the education system. The space program ranks way down with such unpopular "giveaways" as welfare and foreign aid.

Figure 2: Public Support for Eleven Government Programs

Percent Who Want More Spent on Each Program
Halting the rising crime rate  70.0%
Dealing with drug addiction  59.5%
Improving and protecting the nation's health  58.5%
Improving and protecting the environment  51.2%
Improving the hation's education system  49.5%
Solving the problems of the big cities  46.9%
Improving the conditions of Blacks  27.3%
The military, armaments and defense  25.7%
Welfare  13.0%
The space exploration program  10.7%
Foreign aid  3.7%
These figures are based on a national survey
of over 1500 randomly selected American citizens.
Source: Cumulative Codebook for the 1972-1977
General Social Surveys,
National Opinion
Research Center, University of Chicago, 1977.

Many Polls have confirmed that Americans are not very enthusiastic about spaceflight. But we would like to know much more than this simple, melancholy fact. Why do people feel as they do? Which kinds of space project do they favor most? Which kind of space program would get the most support? Which justifications for continuing space development are most convincing to the average American? None of the national polls have asked these important questions. We decided to tackle the problem ourselves with a new questionnaire entirely about spaceflight.

First of all, we needed good questions. Social scientists, like other craftsmen, are only as good as their tools. Rather than try to find the right questions in our own imaginations, we performed a preliminary study to develop the fullest possible set of ideas about the potential value of space. To get the widest range of opinions, we surveyed three very different groups: the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Committee for the Future, and the science-fiction subculture.

The AIAA is the most prestigious large scientific-engineering organization in the aerospace field. From a random sample, 102 members of the AIAA responded to a mailed questionnaire asking for several statements about the value of the space program. The Committee for the Future is a quasi-religious group that was dedicated to the great goal of interplanetary colonization. We collected justifications for spaceflight from CFF literature, from tape recordings we made of speeches at two CFF conventions, and from a questionnaire filled out by 80 participants at one of the meetings. The science fiction subculture is a diffuse network of writers, readers, and dedicated fans. To get statements from them, we recorded interviews with 58 participants at a large science fiction convention, and administered questionnaires to 74 members of the New England Science Fiction Association, one of the best organized clubs.

This produced a tremendous amount of data. To analyze it, we went through all the recordings and questionnaires, copying down every statement that was an answer to the implicit question: Why should we continue the space program. Each statement was typed on a large file card, a total of 1256. The largest number, 620, came from members of the AIAA, while 340 were contributed by science fiction fans, and 296 came from the Committee for the Future.

The next step was to reduce the 1256 statements to a more manageable number. Many of the cards really said the same things. For example, many mentioned something about communication satellites. We carefully. sorted the cards into groups that seemed to be expressing single main ideas, winding up with forty-nine. Using wording on the cards, we wrote a summary statement on behalf of each group. These 49 justifications for spaceflight are the focus of the remainder of this article. We built our questionnaire around them. The respondent was asked to say how good a reason for supporting the space program each one was: "not a good reason," slightly good reason," "moderately good reason," or "extremely good reason." We also included a few miscellaneous questions. The questionnaire was mailed to a random sample of Seattle area voters.

A total of 225 questionnaires were returned properly filled out. The voters held a wide range of opinions, but there were consistent patterns. Some of the statements got a very favorable response, while others received poor ratings. Communication satellites headed the list, with 68.8 percent of the voters calling them an "extremely good reason" for continuing the space program. Lowest on the list with only 4.5 percent, was the statement: "Without spaceflight we would be trapped, closed-in, jailed on this planet."

But the questionnaire was designed to be more than a popularity contest. We also wanted to discover the essential concepts behind all the many ideas about the value of space. That is, we wanted to delineate the conceptual structure of the spaceflight ideology. How do different ideas cluster together? What principle unites all the ideas in a cluster? What are the underlying values that are served by the conquest of space?

Figure 3 shows a first attempt at defining the structure of our 49 statements. We have simply graphed them in two dimensions. Each dot represents one idea. The vertical axis represents the popularity of the different justifications for spaceflight. For each one, we added together the percentage of the 225 respondents who said it was either a "moderately good" or an "extremely good" reason for continuing the space program. Thus, the "popularity rating" for communication satellites is 89.5 percent, while the new scientific knowledge gained through space research has a popularity rating with our Seattle voters of 85.5 percent. These are the two most popular justifications, but as Figure 3 shows, the 49 statements cover a wide range of popularity, and several are very near the top.

Figure 3: Structure of the Spaceflight Ideology

This is a first-approximation look at the conceptual structure of the spaceflight ideology. Each dot represents a different justification for the space program. The lines represent correlations linking some of them. Except for the four military items at the right, the justifications are not greatly associated with conventional political ideologies.

The horizontal axis is based on the political orientation of the respondents, determined through one of our miscellaneous questions. The unit of measurement is a correlation coefficient which we need not explain here. Suffice it to say, statements with a "politics score" more than 0.2 points from zero are favored by voters at one end of the political spectrum much more than by voters at the other end. Perhaps the most important things displayed by Figure 3, and verified by evidence from several other research projects, is the fact that there is no general relationship between political orientation and support for the space program among the American public. Liberals and conservatives give about the same level of support. If there had been a strong political influence on support, Figure 3 would have looked very different. The dots would have been displaced significantly to the right or left of the zero line. But we do not see this. Forty-five of the dots run in a narrow rectangle centered right on the zero line.

The lines connecting several of the dots represent correlations between them. That is, voters who favor one item will also tend to favor any items to which it is connected. For example, there is a line connecting communication satellites with weather satellites. This means that people who think one is "extremely good" will probably feel the same about the other. People who rate one lower than other people do, will tend to have a relatively negative opinion of the other as well. These lines represent the internal structure of the ideas, linking ideas that share some common principle to which people respond in a fairly regular way. In a moment this interpretation of the lines will take on some importance, but first, let us scan the diagram with our eyes and see if we can spot obvious structures within it.

We have to admit the shape is irregular. It has none of the beautiful symmetry of a DNA molecule. But there are patterns and clusters. The most prominent feature is the arm of four statements reaching out to the right. These are the only ones in the entire set with strong political overtones. Conservative voters rank them much higher than do liberals. These four dots are connected by lines, indicating that people respond to them as a group of ideas sharing some common characteristic. How can we tell what it is? We have to compare the meanings of the statements. One says that space has military applications; another urges us to keep ahead of the Russians. The third says that the space program boosts American national pride and prestige in the world. The most popular one states the importance of spy satellites for military reconnaissance. Clearly, these four contain a common concern for the military and world-political status of the United States. It is no wonder that these items are favored by politically conservative voters.

Our eyes find it more difficult to spot other structures. There is a little arm to the left, but not significantly far to the left, ending in "CETI" -- communication with intelligent beings from other planets. There seem to be groupings inside the main body, but what are they? Our eyes may deceive us. Is there a scientific procedure for discovering such internal structures?

In fact, there are several kinds of statistical analysis that can process the vast amount of information crudely represented in Figure 3 and identify dimensions and clusters. We used one of the most common, factor analysis. This procedure starts with the opinions of our 225 voters on each of the 49 items, a total of 225 x 49 = 11,025 pieces of information. It first produces a matrix of correlations between all pairs of items, expressing the degree of association linking each pair. Again, the lines connecting dots in Figure 3 are crude representations of the strongest correlations, we found. The correlation coefficient linking weather and communication satellites, for example, happens to be 0.51655, a number whose meaning need not concern us here, but which had to be calculated as a step in the factor analysis. The basic correlation matrix contained 49 x 48/2 = 1176 such numbers.

Our computer was instructed to look for "factors" in this matrix. Each factor is a cluster of intercorrelated items that elicit similar patterns of response from the voters. The computation procedure is entirely mechanical, but we ran several such analyses, cutting the structure into few or many pieces, comparing the solutions to see which one did the best job of clustering ideas into mathematically sound and meaningful groups. The best solution produced five factors, collecting into groups 40 of our 49 statements, with nine left over that had few connections with other statements.

For an example of the results, we show the smallest of the five factors in Figure 4. There is no problem recognizing this factor. It is the cluster of four military-political ideas we were able to spot in Figure 3. The "factor loadings" listed in the table are the actual coefficients in the computer print-out that tagged these four as members of a single factor. The computer prints a number of columns, one for each factor, giving the "loading" for each of the 49 items. High numbers (approaching 1.0) identify items that are in the particular cluster. All four of our military statements have loadings on this factor above 0.5, while the average of the other 45 is only 0.127.

Figure 4: The Military Factor

 with Voters 
0.77344.0%  Space has military applications; our nation
 must develop space weapons for its own defense.
0.73941.7%  Space is an important arena for international
 competition, and if we do not keep our lead,
 the Russians will gain an advantage over us.
0.60843.6%  The success of the U.S. space program increases
 our prestige in the world, demonstrates the value
 of democracy, and renews American national pride.
0.56059.8%  Military reconnaissance satellites (spy satellites)
 further the cause of peace by making secret
 preparations for war and sneak attacks almost impossible.
0.12745.4% average of 45 other statements
"Popularity" is defined as the percent of 225 Seattle
voters who feel the statement describes a "moderately good"
or "extremely good" reason for supporting the space program.

Factor analysis does not always work. Because it is entirely mechanical, it sometimes "finds" structure when there is none, grouping items together in meaningless bunches. One reason we know our analysis worked well is because the loadings were fairly high. Another reason is that we got the same factors, basically, when we forced the computer to group the data into more or fewer factors. But the final test is always the intelligibility of the different factors. They are no good unless they mean something. We believe that each of our five does in fact represent a basic motive for supporting spaceflight.

Figure 5 shows one of the biggest factors, a cluster of ten ideas listed in order of their loadings, the order in which those items that express the factor's key ideas best are found at the top. Simply reading the first three statements immediately tells us what the factor is about. It urges colonization of outer space. Each statement either tells us that we ought to colonize the planets, or describes what good things we might do in our colonies. Of course some of the ideas are more reasonable or more popular than others, but every single one is about colonization. Therefore, we can call this the COLONIZATION factor. After inspecting the other factors, we have named them: EMOTIONAL-IDEALISTIC, ECONOMIC-INDUSTRIAL, and INFORMATION.

Figure 5: Popularity of Statements in the Colonization Factor

with Voters 
24.7% Overpopulation on Earth can be solved by using the living space on other planets.
23.6% Space travel will lead to the planting of human colonies on new worlds in space.
24.2% Society has a chance for a completely f resh start in space; new social forms and exciting new styles of life can be created on other worlds.
50.9% Raw materials from the moon and other planets can supplement the dwindling natural resources of the Earth.
17.6% Our world has become too small for human civilization and for the human mind; we need the wide open spaces of the stars and planets to get away from the confines of a shrinking world.
25.8% Spaceflight is necessary to ensure the survival of the human race against destruction by natural or man-made disaster.
32.2% Human societies have always needed to expand in order to remain healthy; space is the only direction left for such expansion.
20.4% We must go beyond the finite Earth into infinite space in order to continue economic growth without limit.
50.9% Space hospitals put into orbit where there is no gravity will be able to provide new kinds of medical treatment and give many patients easier recoveries.
40.3% Commercial manufacturing can be done in space without polluting the Earth; completely new materials and products can be made in space.

The EMOTIONAL-IDEALISTIC factor mentions a number of personal feelings and spiritual motives that might be served by spaceflight. It says we must explore space to satisfy our great curiosity and in search of fun, excitement and adventure. Space provides a challenge and a goal for mankind, an outlet for human aggressive instincts, and may help bring about global renewal on Earth. Space enlarges the mind and the spirit of man, and will teach us to love and respect our own planet. The factor even includes the following personal statement: "I am in favor of the space program because I would very much like the experience of travel space myself."

The ECONOMIC-INDUSTRIAL factor talks about the job opportunities and economic stimulus provided by the space program. It says we must continue the program in order to maintain the quality of American technology and so that our highly trained manpower will not be wasted. It says the space program encourages young people to choose careers in science and technology, and that the program is a good training ground for scientists and engineers. Finally, the factor mentions spinoffs: "Space technology produces many valuable inventions and discoveries which have unexpected applications in industry or everyday life."

The INFORMATION factor lists ways that space contributes to the discovery and communication of new knowledge. It lists four already successful programs: weather satellites, navigation satellites, Earth resource satellites, and communication satellites. These systems collect and distribute information. This factor includes the same spinoff item as the ECONOMIC-INDUSTRIAL factor. This is the only statement shared by two factors, and it clearly does have both economic and informational aspects. The factor suggests that "Space technology will allow us to manage the environment of our planet because it is developing techniques for managing artificial environments that support human life." The key principle is information, whether of an immediately practical or more abstract nature: "Space development will give us new practical knowledge that can be used to improve human life." "Space exploration adds tremendously to our scientific knowledge."

Now that we have discovered the five main motives served by spaceflight, we can measure their relative acceptance by the American public. Which ones are most convincing to the average citizen? Which ones can be used to convince the average citizen to support the space program? Figure 6 gives the average popularity of the statements in each factor. The first column of figures reports the responses of our Seattle voters. But perhaps Seattle is not typical of American cities. Perhaps our figures are biased, overly positive because some voters who are not interested in space did not care to return their questionnaires to us. Such possibilities would not cause much trouble for our factor analysis, because correlations between statements would not be greatly affected by the over-all level of enthusiasm. But our very important popularity estimates are somewhat sensitive to any differences between our respondents and the average American voter. Therefore, we used information from the miscellaneous part of the questionnaire to calibrate the study and produce the most conservative plausible estimate to compare to the unadjusted figures.

Figure 6: Popularity of Justifications for Spaceflight

Group of Justifications
of 225 
Estimate for
Total U.S. Adult
INFORMATION Factor 78.7%69.8%
MILITARY Factor 47.3%40.7%
COLONIZATION Factor 31.1%24.7%
9 Unfactored Justifications 45.1%39.4%
All 49 Justifications 45.5%38.4%

The very first item in the questionnaire was the question used by Gallup in 1969 to measure support for the space program. The respondents to our questionnaire were more enthusiastic than the average citizen about the space program, 23.7 percent of them calling for an increase in space funding, as opposed to the much lower 10.7 percent reported from a national poll in Figure 2. We recalculated each popularity estimate separately, extrapolating downward, then recombined them to give the factor estimates. That is, we statistically predicted how our Seattle voters would have responded to each item if they had been just as unenthusiastic about space as the average American. In an article published in Astronautics and Aeronautics (June 1978), we used the old Gallup poll figures to produce moderately conservative estimates. Here, we arrived at conservative estimates using data from the 1976 poll of the National Opinion Research Center, a survey that found even lower support for spaceflight than the 1977 poll. In 1976, fully 61.9 percent of the respondents wanted space expenditures reduced, and only 9.4 percent called for an increase. This gave conservative estimates, which may be too low, a rock-bottom pessimistic guess at the popularity of each factor.

Both columns of popularity estimates rank the five factors in the same order, so either is good for comparing them. In each case, the true popularity is undoubtedly somewhere between the two estimates. This means that the table contains some very encouraging findings. The most popular factor, INFORMATION, gets a favorable response from a solid majority of Americans, even in the conservative estimate. Two other factors, ECONOMIC-INDUSTRIAL and MILITARY, are within striking distance of a majority. These three factors contain many statements that refer to benefits that the space program has already achieved. Thus, Americans are most enthusiastic about practical payoffs and do appreciate the major accomplishments of the space program.

But Americans are not enthusiastic about potential revolutionary long-range goals in space. They are not impressed by emotional and idealistic motives, and they give the lowest rating of all to interplanetary colonization. If we want to stimulate public support for the space program, we should emphasize practical, immediate, scientific and informational benefits, giving second place to economic motives. It is no good to try to sell the colonization of space.

Four of the statements that refused to fall into clusters in the factor analysis received relatively high popularity ratings from Seattle voters. Nearly three quarters, 73.9 percent, expressed general faith in space exploration by agreeing that "space will be of value in ways we cannot yet imagine." The idea that "space can provide a focus for increasing international cooperation leading to world unity" was favored by 62.4 percent. A practical idea, promoted heavily by NASA and by aerospace companies after our survey was completed, got a 60.4 percent rating: "Electric power generated in space and sent down to Earth will help solve the energy crisis without polluting our environment." Finally, a project on NASA's drawing boards and long a favorite of science fiction writers received a 53.0 percent rating: "Communication with intelligent beings from other planets would give us completely new perceptions of humanity, new art, philosophy, and science."

What conclusions can we draw from this survey of Seattle voters? Most importantly, although public support for the space program is weak, some goals and projects of the program are in fact very popular. The public appreciates what has already been achieved. Not only does the majority feel that the knowledge gained through space research is valuable, but it also hopes for future benefits that cannot even be imagined today. While the public is not yet ready to support colonization of the solar system, it is ready to support some steps that would eventually lead to colonization. For example, Americans believe that space may become an important source of raw materials and energy. In a few years they may be prepared to invest in aggressive programs to attain this objective. About half of the public is excited by the idea of communication with extraterrestrials, and would look favorably on a CETI project. The single questions on space included in national polls have provided only bad news; our much more detailed study of Seattle voters uncovered some good news.

American enthusiasm for spaceflight may not be great, but it is complex. Americans hold a wide range of opinions about many different justifications for the space program. Three of the five basic motives for space travel receive comfortable levels of acceptance. Although the public is not willing to pay for a great thrust forward in space development at the present time, it does want gradual expansion of our spaceflight capabilities. Furthermore, our data show that several potential sources of greater future support exist. If Russian aggressiveness continues much longer, the Military Factor will cease to be a right-wing motive for spaceflight, and will receive greater emphasis as an expression of American consensus. When orbiting solar power facilities are shown to be feasible, the public will demand them. Anything that can focus enthusiasm for communication with extraterrestrial intelligence could boost the space program. Thus, unlike the simplistic national polls, our detailed survey has found much cause for optimism. It was as if we had surveyed the instrument panel of the good spaceship Spaceflight: We saw little thrust from the engines at the moment, but all systems are go, and several instruments indicate the possibility of future high acceleration.


Bainbridge, William Sims. The Spaceflight Revolution. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1976.

Gibney, Frank, and George J. Feldman. The Reluctant Space-Farers. New York: New American Library, 1965.

Logsdon, John M. The Decision to Go to the Moon. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1970.

Ordway, Frederick I., Carsbie C. Adams, and Mitchell R. Sharpe. Dividends from Space. New York: Crowell, 1971.

Van Duke, Vernon. Pride and Power -- The Rationale of the Space Program. Urbana: University, of Illinois Press, 1964.