The Other Moon Walk

Jul 15, 2009 10:05am

The moon landing 40 years ago Monday has gained popularity with the distance of time, with initial objections about its cost giving way to a broader endorsement of the value of the space program. But price sensitivity remains high, a cautionary note for future efforts.

Initial reaction to the space program was positive – absent the price tag. In a Gallup poll in 1961, 65 percent approved of sending “a man into space.” But when Gallup noted that landing a man on the moon could cost $40 billion, the tables turned: Fifty-eight percent were opposed.

That didn’t change much as the decade progressed. In a Harris poll in 1967, 54 percent still said the $4 billion annual cost was “not worth it”; in a later question, 43 percent supported the moon effort nonetheless, but 46 percent were opposed. And the landing itself, while drawing enormous attention, did not seem to improve perceptions of the value proposition: In 1970, a year after Neil Armstrong set his boots in the lunar dust, 56 percent said the trip had not been worth its allotted $4 billion a year for nine years.

Another question, first asked on the 10th anniversary of the moon walk, noted that it had cost “a great deal of time, effort and money,” without specifying the sum. In 1979, 47 percent said it was worth it. But time mellowed that view: When the question was re-asked in 1994 the number saying the moon landing was "worth it" jumped to 66 percent, and it hit 71 percent in 1999, currently the most recent data.

There’s been similar growth in the number who say the space program overall “has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs” – just 41 percent in 1979 and 47 percent when asked again in 1994. But it reached a majority in 1996 and has stayed there since, peaking at 65 percent in 2003 (immediately after the Columbia disaster, and so possibly with some sympathy effect).

Cost concerns do remain; in a General Social Survey poll last year, many more said the United States is spending too much on NASA, 33 percent, than too little, 13 percent. Still, the plurality, 47 percent, said the level of spending seemed about right. And the sense that “too much” is being spent has moderated sharply over the years, from a high of 58 to 61 percent in the early and mid 1970s.

Looking ahead, Americans have not expressed much concern about competition in space. A 2008 poll by Gallup for a group called the “Coalition for Space Exploration” noted that China had announced plans for a moon landing by 2017, the United States by 2018, and asked if respondents were “concerned that China would become the new leader in space exploration or take the lead over the U.S.” Thirty-two percent were; 67 percent, not.

Additionally – and underscoring price sensitivity – a 2004 ABC/Post poll measured the perceived cost vs. benefits of then-President Bush’s proposal to establish a manned base on the moon and eventually send astronauts to Mars. (“Opponents say it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and take money away from other programs” vs. “supporters say it would increase scientific knowledge and produce technology that will help people on Earth.”) Sixty-two percent opposed the idea. Similarly, 58 percent in a CBS/Times poll that year said a manned moon station was “not worth it.”

In terms of historical significance, half of Americans in a 1999 Gallup poll called the moon landing one of the 20th century’s most important moments; in a separate question, though, fewer called it humanity’s “single greatest technological achievement” (39 percent). When a Pew poll in May asked, open-ended, “America’s greatest achievement over the past 50 years,” 12 percent cited space exploration or the moon landing – the top category, but down from 18 percent in a 1999 poll, and not statistically different from the No. 2 item, Barack Obama’s election, cited by 10 percent. 

Finally, a very small share of the population has bought into claims the moon landings were faked – 6 percent in polls in 1995 and 1999. That’s roughly the customary number who agree with such questions, some perhaps encouraged by their very outlandishness.

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