Public Support for the Space Program


William Sims Bainbridge

Astronautics and Aeronautics, June 1978, pages 60-61, 76;
Reprinted in Journal of Contemporary Business, 1978, 7(3):185-189

This article reports the main findings of a questionnaire designed to discover the public's reaction to the various justifications that have been given for continuing the space program. Using correlational techniques, including factor analysis, I charted not only the popularity of different justifications but also their relationships with each other. The overall findings should be gratifying to NASA and to members of the AIAA. The public shows a high level of support for space projects that have immediate practical benefits or provide new scientific or technical knowledge.

The first task was to collect a large number of statements about the value of space. I needed a wide variety of ideas from people who knew much about the possible benefits of space and who had already spent time thinking about them. The largest set of ideas came from 102 members of the AIAA who responded to a questionnaire that I sent to a random sample of the national membership. I needed the opinions of visionaries as well as engineers, impractical ideas as well as practical ones, so that the final result would be a comprehensive selection. For this reason, I also sampled two other groups: (1) the subculture of dedicated science fiction fans and (2) a quasi-religious group interested in space colonization, the Committee for the Future.

These three sources of opinion contributed a total of 1256 separate statements about the value of the space program. Through content analysis, this large body of material was boiled down to 49 short summary statements, each expressing a distinct idea that had been mentioned several times. With the help of Richard Wyckoff, a graduate student in sociology, a scientific questionnaire was constructed using these 49 statements, administered to a random sample of 230 registered voters living in the Seattle area, and analyzed statistically. The results were very clear.

Fifteen of the statements, nearly a third of the total, impressed most voters as "moderately good" or even "extremely good" reasons for continuing the space program. (These 15 are listed in the appendix.) Communications satellites headed the list of beneficial programs, receiving this strongly positive response from 86.5% of Seattle area voters. The scientific knowledge attained through space exploration held second rank, approved by 82.1%. Earth-resource satellites, weather satellites, technological spinoffs, and other practical benefits were most popular with the voters. The unconventional idea that ranked highest, communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, was approved by 53.0%.

To gain an overview of the copious data from the voter questionnaire, we subjected responses to factor analysis, a commonly used statistical technique designed to discover natural groupings in a collection of items like our 49 statements justifying the space program. Our analysis extracted five very solid factors, collecting into five groups 40 of the 49 items. Below we describe these five clusters, in order from the one whose items were most popular on the average to the one whose items ranked lowest.

1. Information. The ideas clustered in this group describe various ways that the space program provides valuable new information. Navigation satellites can tell ship and aircraft captains where they are. Weather and Earth-resource satellites inform us about the land and atmosphere. Spinoffs from the space program represent new technical know-how, new practical knowledge. Communication satellites give us a new way to transmit information over long distances, furthering human understanding. New methods of managing the Earth's environment and new scientific knowledge clearly fit into the category of information benefits. On the average, 75.1% of the registered voters think the information benefits of space constitute a good reason for continuing the program.

2. Economic-Industrial. Several justifications state that the space program strengthens the American economy, provides jobs, and contributes to the general excellence of our technology. These statements rank on the average down near the middle of the list of 49. Although they accept the notion of spinoffs, Americans do not seem to be very excited about other benefits to industry and employment. For example, only 35.0% felt the space program provides an essential stimulus to the economy.

3. Military. These items describe the impact of the space program on the military and political balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States. Space does have military applications, and many respondents feel we must keep the Russians from gaining an advantage over us. Spy satellites serve world peace by protecting America against surprise attack, while American space success increases our national prestige and pride. Of all the justifications, only this group was politically controversial. "Conservative" respondents were enthusiastic about the military items, but "Liberal" respondents gave them a much lower rating. We think it is very important to note that the political opinions of respondents did not influence their attitudes toward any other justifications, nor was politics a factor in determining voters' general level of support for the space program.

4. Emotional-Idealistic. A dozen of the least popular statements are clustered in this group. They share the characteristic of emotionality. Several talk of specific human emotions that spaceflight could satisfy: curiosity, excitement, humility, loneliness, respect, and love. Others make vague, grandiose pronouncements about human values: global renewal, a new frontier, enlarging the human mind, finding a goal for mankind, and finding a substitute, for human conflict. These justifications are highly moralistic and personal. They are the type most often mentioned by members of the Committee for the Future (CFF). The CFF used to complain that NASA did not really understand the meaning of the space program. CFF propaganda claimed that idealistic, far-sighted motivations were more important than any other kind. One leader of the Committee described the CFF as "NASA finding its soul." The low popularity of these emotional-idealistic justifications indicates that the public agrees with NASA, not with the CFF. Philosophical justifications do not convince the public as much as more practical ones.

5. Colonization. Least popular of the factors, this one clusters together all the items that concern human colonization of space and the development of a truly interplanetary society. Perhaps these items would be more popular if our technology were closer to making colonization a reality. The ideas envision the planting of colonies on other planets, reducing overpopulation on Earth, and creating new social forms in alien environments. They suggest that there will be mines, factories, and even hospitals in space. Economic growth and human expansion, they assert, can continue without limit in space, and ensure that our species will continue to progress even if our planet should be destroyed by some cosmic disaster. These ideas impressed few voters.

Apart from these five factors, we have a residual category of nine isolated justifications, four of which rank fairly high. One of them, the idea that space will be valuable in ways not yet imagined, was given a strong positive rating by 68.5% of the voters. This expresses significant public faith in the future of the space program.

The other three popular justifications for the space program describe projects that have received much publicity in the past couple of years. Space as a focus for increasing international cooperation was favored by 62.4%. We already have mentioned that a majority liked the idea of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. And 60.4% were hopeful that electric power could be generated in space for use on Earth.

These results show the public appreciates the practical and scientific results of the space program, and looks forward to more benefits from reasonable new projects. It is probably a good thing that voters are not enthusiastic about the emotional-idealistic and colonization items, because the space program might lose much support if people had unrealistic expectations and then were disillusioned.

In summary, our research indicates that Seattle voters give a good level of support for the space program, based on a realistic understanding of practical benefits being achieved.


Ranking of Most Popular Justifications for the Space Program

1. Radio, telephone, and TV relay satellites are vital links in the world's communication system, fostering education and international understanding.

2. Space exploration adds tremendously to our knowledge.

3. Earth resource satellites allow us to monitor the natural environment of the Earth and help locate valuable resources such as minerals and water.

4. Meteorology satellites aid in making accurate predictions of the weather.

5. Space technology produces many valuable inventions and discoveries which have unexpected applications in industry or everyday life.

6. Navigation satellites are a great help to ship and plane navigators, and traffic control from space can aid safe and efficient use of conventional transportation systems.

7. Space development will give us new practical knowledge that can be used to improve human life.

8. Space will be of value in ways we cannot yet imagine.

9. Space can provide a focus for increasing international cooperation leading to world unity.

10. Electric power generated in space and sent down to Earth will help solve the energy crisis without polluting our environment.

11. Military reconnaissance satellites (spy satellites) further the cause of peace by making secret preparations for war and sneak attacks almost impossible.

12. The space program encourages young people to choose careers in science and technology, and is itself a good training ground for scientists and engineers.

13. Space progress will provide new, rewarding jobs for many people.

14. 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.

15.Communication with intelligent beings from other planets would give us completely new perceptions of humanity, new art, philosophy, and science.

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