In the post-Columbia shuttle era, public support for NASA remains high. But the tragedy prompted vagueness as to the direction and intensity of piloted missions in the US space-related research and development effort.
Those views are part of the newly issued and wide-ranging Science and Engineering Indicators 2004, the 16th in the series of biennial reports conducted by the National Science Board.
The National Science Board (NSB) is an independent body established by the US Congress in 1950 that oversees and guides the activities and policies of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C.
Within the NSB report, survey findings are presented that gauge US public attitudes and understanding of issues in science and technology.
The report notes that loss of the Columbia space shuttle on February 1 of last year did not have an immediate impact on public attitudes about the US space program. However, the report observes that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven on February 1, 2003, “resulted in uncertainty as to the future focus and intensity of manned missions in the U.S. space-related R&D effort.”
The report points to a Gallup survey conducted shortly after the Columbia tragedy. That survey indicated that 82 percent of respondents expressed support for continuing the manned space shuttle program. Only 15 percent favored ending the program. These findings are almost identical to those recorded after the loss of the Challenger space shuttle in January 1986.
A majority of Americans surveyed continue to support funding for NASA and the US space program. Nearly half (49 percent) of those surveyed after the Columbia tragedy thought NASA’s funding should be maintained at its current level, and one-fourth favored an increase in funding.
In the same poll, 17 percent thought funding should be reduced, and another 7 percent said the program should be ended altogether. These findings are not markedly different from data obtained in December 1999, when 16 percent of survey respondents favored increased funding for NASA, with 49 percent wanting space agency funding to stay at its current level. Twenty-four percent favored a cutback, and 10 percent thought the U.S. space program should be terminated.
Again, these findings are similar to those obtained after the loss of the Challenger.
In the 2003 poll, as cited in the new NSB report, 45 percent of respondents rated NASA’s job performance as excellent, and 37 percent rated it as good. Only two percent gave NASA a poor rating.
In surveys conducted before 2003, no more than 26 percent of respondents ever rated NASA’s performance as excellent (that high point occurred in 1998). The exceptionally high percentage of excellent ratings in 2003 may reflect the addition of the phrase “looking beyond the tragedy” to the survey question.
The report also brings out people’s views on manned and unmanned missions, global warming and ‘pseudoscience’.