By Senior space writer
updated 5/14/2004 7:35:31 PM ET 2004-05-14T23:35:31

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. public attitudes and understanding of issues in science and technology.

Loss of Columbia
The NSB 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 U.S. 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.

NASA funding
A majority of Americans surveyed continue to support funding for NASA and the U.S. 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.

Humans versus space robots
Americans also continue to favor human over robotic missions, the NSB report explains. After the loss of the Columbia, 52 percent of survey respondents said they favored manned missions, whereas 37 percent favored unmanned missions.

Public opinion on manned versus unmanned exploration has changed little since 1990.

In other survey questions posed after the loss of the Columbia, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they were "deeply upset" by the event (similar to response after the Challenger accident). About 70 percent said they had expected that "something like this would happen again sooner or later."

When respondents were asked about their confidence in NASA’s ability to prevent similar accidents in the future, 38 percent expressed a "great deal" of confidence, and 44 percent had a "fair amount" of confidence. Again, this response is similar to that after the Challenger accident.

Global warming or warning?
On the topic of whether global warming here on Earth is a problem, the NSB reports "there is a three-way split in public opinion."

That is, approximately equal numbers of respondents say it is a very serious problem, a moderate problem, and a slight problem - or not a problem at all.

The NSB report continues: "Whatever their view about the seriousness of global warming, more than half (51 percent) of Americans think its effects have already begun, and others expect to see effects within a few years (6 percent) or within their lifetime (12 percent). Only 10 percent said the potential effects of global warming will never happen."

The NSB report adds that most Americans (61 percent) believe that human activities are more responsible for increases in the Earth’s temperature over the last century than natural causes.

Extraterrestrial visitors
Under a subsection titled, "Belief in Pseudoscience", the NSB’s Science and Engineering Indicators report looks to public belief in visitors from afar.

Based on studies conducted by NSF and other organizations -- "a sizable minority" of the public believes in unidentified flying objects and that aliens have landed on Earth.

In a 2001 NSF survey, 30 percent of respondents agreed that "some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations."

For readers interested in viewing the full report, click here.

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