"We must continue to drill," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, said on the Senate floor Thursday, comparing the disaster in the Gulf to two previous incidents, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island and also the Challenger space shuttle explosion.
"What we did not do is end the space program. We did not stop launching. We did not stop exploring," she said. "We have to find a way to make sure it never happens again, strengthen our resolve and ... continue to be the world leader."
Experts say what will really determine the impact of this incident is whether it was caused by human error or by structural or technological damage.
"Until we know how and why this happened, it is pretty hard to evaluate how serious this is," Jaffe said. "The answer to the question of what caused this accident is just critical because all these people who were in favor of [offshore] drilling need to know that answer before they can reevaluate their position. ... We can't have proper national debate until we know the answer."
High gasoline prices and reliance on foreign oil both encourage support for new drilling, recent polls have shown. A Pew poll last month found that nearly two-third of Americans, about 63 percent, favored more offshore drilling for oil and gas. A Fox News poll earlier this month found that 70 percent of registered voters supported an increase in offshore drilling.
But surveys from the time of the last major spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster of March 1989, show that environmental concerns also take a place at the table. In April 1989, the month after the Exxon Valdez spill, the percentage of people who favored "stronger regulations on where and how the oil companies drill for offshore oil and gas" jumped to 62 percent from 49 percent a year ago. By March 1990, 70 percent of those polled felt that way.
ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf and Gary Langer contributed to this report.