Americans opinions about the future of US human spaceflight program appear to be as ambivalent and conflicting as the opinions that now vex the space community itself.
With the landing of Atlantis bringing a formal end to the 30-year space shuttle program Thursday, NASA now turns over space station runs to private rocketmakers and instead focuses on more distant goals, such as sending astronauts to an asteroid, then Mars. But since the private space industry is not yet able to send Americans into space – and won't be for several years – the US will, in the meantime, have to pay Russia $63 million a seat to hitch a ride.
A Monitor/TIPP poll shows clearly that Americans are not pleased by the idea of relying on Russia – or anyone else – to reach space. Some 78 percent of respondents said it was very or somewhat important for the US to maintain its leadership role in space.
Moreover, Americans are not at all convinced that the Obama administration knows where human spaceflight should go from here. Only 9 percent of respondents said the government has a clear plan for the astronaut program.
Similarly, many within the space community have criticized the Obama administration for shuttering the space program and leaving the design and production of a next-generation rocket to a nascent private industry.
But the Obama administration counters that the space shuttle program was consuming enormous resources for the relatively mundane task of ferrying astronauts to the space station. Each shuttle flight cost about $1.5 billion. Better to leave it to private industry to drive that cost down and instead focus on missions and technologies that promise to move humans beyond low-Earth orbit and into the solar system, supporters say.
NASA's goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 is seen as a necessary stepping-stone to a more ambitious mission, such as sending astronauts to Mars. But the American public is loath to abandoning the space shuttles in the interim, with 56 percent opposing the ending of the program.
On the other hand, few of the 904 people polled wanted to beef up the space program. Overall, the poll, conducted July 5-10, suggests Americans are conflicted about turning key parts of US human spaceflight to private companies. Some 49 percent say NASA funding should stay the same, while 28 percent say it should be decreased, 10 percent say it should be increased, and 8 percent say it should be endeded completely.
The majority – 59 percent – agree that the space program would be better off if it got "out of Washington" and cut the bureaucracy. Yet only 23 percent of respondents said the government should play a supporting role to private industry in the future of space exploration, while 65 percent said it should take a leading or active role.
In the end, it seems that much of America is simply sad to see the shuttles go: 52 percent said the shuttle program did enough to justify its costs.