Because of the on-going dispute over the future of human space exploration, I have been reminded of the longstanding perception that in the 1960s NASA’s Apollo program enjoyed great public support. That is a misconception. The belief that Apollo enjoyed enthusiastic support during the 1960s and that somehow NASA has lost its compass thereafter still enjoys broad appeal . This is an important conception, for without the active agreement of political leaders and at least public acquiescence no exploration effort may be sustained for any length of time.
The level of popular support that most people believe the public held for the Kennedy decision to undertake the Moon landings are, therefore, perceived as something that must be gained for the present space exploration agenda to succeed. Repeatedly a chorus of remorse for the lukewarm popular support enjoyed by specific space exploration activities is followed with a heavy sigh and the conclusion, “if only our current efforts had the same level of commitment enjoyed by Apollo, all would be well.”
While there may be reasons to accept that Apollo was transcendentally important at some sublime level, assuming a generally rosy public acceptance of it is at best a simplistic and ultimately unsatisfactory conclusion. Indeed, the public’s support for space funding has remained remarkably stable at approximately 80 percent in favor of the status quo since 1965, with only one significant dip in support in the early 1970s. However, responses to funding questions on public opinion polls are extremely sensitive to question wording and must be used cautiously.
For example, in the summer of 1965 one third of the nation favored cutting the space budget, while only 16 percent wanted to increase it. Over the next three-and-one-half years, the number in favor of cutting space spending went up to 40 percent, with those preferring an increase dropping to 14 percent. At the end of 1965, the New York Times reported that a poll conducted in six American cities showed five other public issues holding priority over efforts in outer space. Polls in the 1960s also consistently ranked spaceflight near the top of those programs to be cut in the federal budget. Most Americans seemingly preferred doing something about air and water pollution, job training for unskilled workers, national beautification, and poverty before spending federal funds on human spaceflight. The following year Newsweek echoed the Times story, stating: “The U.S. space program is in decline. The Vietnam war and the desperate conditions of the nation’s poor and its cities—which make space flight seem, in comparison, like an embarrassing national self‑indulgence—have combined to drag down a program where the sky was no longer the limit.”
Nor did lunar exploration in and of itself create much of a groundswell of popular support from the general public. The American public during the 1960s largely showed a hesitancy to “race” the Soviets to the Moon. “Would you favor or oppose U.S. government spending to send astronauts to the moon?” these polls asked, and in virtually all cases a majority opposed doing so, even during the height of Apollo. At only one point, October 1965, did more than half of the public favor continuing human lunar exploration. In the post-Apollo era, the American public has continued to question the validity of undertaking human expeditions to the Moon. This also shows the result of the recent return to the Moon with the Clementine space probe in 1994, which found evidence of embedded ice at the poles, and even then support for human exploration was essentially equally divided.
Some conclude from these opinion polls that even though the American public might have been generally unsupportive of human lunar exploration, that Project Apollo—wrapped as it was in the bosom of American virtue, advocated by the most publicly wholesome of astronaut heroes, and hawked by everyone from journalists to Madison Avenue marketers—enjoyed consistent popularity. There is some evidence to suggest this, but it is, on the main, untrue. From the 1960s to near the present, using the polling data that exists, there is little evidence to support an expansive lunar exploration and colonization program. One must conclude from these results that the United States undertook and carried out Apollo not because the public clamored for it during the 1960s, but because it served other purposes. Furthermore, this polling data suggests that should the United States mount another human mission to the Moon in the future it will also be because the mission serves a larger political, economic, or national defense agenda.
The only point at which the opinion surveys demonstrate that more than 50 percent of the public believed Apollo was worth its expense came in 1969 at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. And even then only a measly 53 percent agreed that the result justified the expense, despite the fact that the landing was perhaps the most momentous event in human history since it became the first instance in which the human race became bi-planetary.
These statistics do not demonstrate an unqualified support for NASA’s effort to reach the Moon in the 1960s. They suggest, instead, that the political crisis that brought public support to the initial lunar landing decision was fleeting and within a short period the coalition that announced it had to reconsider their decision. It also suggests that the public was never enthusiastic about human lunar exploration, and especially about the costs associated with it. What enthusiasm it may have enjoyed waned over time, until by the end of the Apollo program in December 1972 one has the image of the program as something akin to a limping marathoner straining with every muscle to reach the finish line before collapsing.