William Sims Bainbridge has been analyzing public perceptions of spaceflight for more than four decades. The Meaning and Value of Spaceflight: Public Perceptions carries this analysis to a far more comprehensive place than ever before. This study of public engagement with space exploration assesses considerable data collected since the beginning of the space age by a wide array of organizations.
Bainbridge is credited with identifying a “spaceflight revolution” in the 1960s. He has argued in that earlier work that a near conspiracy of space zealots manipulated the U.S. government to create an organization and fund an aggressive lunar landing program. The pro-space community, according to Bainbridge is critical to aggressive efforts in space. He views it akin to a civil religion with tiny bands of adherents around the world spreading the “gospel” of movement beyond Earth. This transcendent social movement advocating space exploration has been central to the arc of space activities in the United States.
In this book Bainbridge undertakes an analysis of years of public opinion and survey data to construct the parameters of public beliefs about this subject. He notes that since the end of the Cold War American presidents have reduced the funding levels for NASA as a percentage of all government expenditures and at least since the dawn of the twenty-first century both the Bush and Obama administrations have cut back severely on all fundamental research in science and engineering. This is a troubling development, but it reflects public attitudes toward these expenditures. He seeks to understand this in The Meaning and Value of Spaceflight: Public Perceptions.
In ten scintillating chapters Bainbridge focuses on several key issues. He explores the General Social Survey (GSS) data to assess the demographics, class, occupation, education, and ideology of advocates for spaceflight. Not surprisingly, those interested in this endeavor have over time been better educated, more scientifically and technologically savvy, and at least upper middle class in background. There also tends to be more men than women supportive of this activity. None of this is particularly out of the ordinary. At some level those struggling to survive in modern America are less concerned about spending precious dollars on something that might be appropriately considered unimportant in comparison to daily national needs. It is also a non-partisan issue; one in which Democrats and Republicans do not joust over space priorities, funding, and issues. Bainbridge shows how this is the case and then comes to a thoughtful conclusion: “Because it is not inexorably tied to one major political party or the other; space exploration is not a high priority for either Democrats and Republications, and its recent inability to inspire the general public means they both are unlikely to give it a high priority on political grounds” (p. 60).
Beyond general analysis of GSS data, Bainbridge recites several studies that he has undertaken over the years involving goals in space. He finds that among elites there is a 0906much higher proportion of support for NASA and space exploration. He also notes that “space-related events have only a modest impact on public opinion, not enough neither to kill the program nor to give it new life” (p. 109). The author follows with chapters on scientists and their perspectives on space exploration—they are more interested in knowledge advancement than in space missions but they are not opposed to most of NASA’s efforts provided they do not feel that they are suffering from the prioritization process—and on the humanities where space exploration is a staple of literature, in the media and the film industry where there are many boosters of the space program, as well as among the video gaming community where spaceflight is a major theme.
Bainbridge offers some closing comments that will especially relate to those interested in the history of spaceflight. “The Space Race of a half a century ago raised public awareness of many meanings that spaceflight can have, and that level of understanding persists,” he concludes. “There is an obvious astronautics metaphor: the space program is coasting in low Earth orbit, having already accomplished amazing things, and its current freefall need not be a warning of disaster. If this is a good metaphor, rising to a higher orbit and eventual escape requires less delta-V (velocity increase) and can be done gradually” (p. 218). We’ll see!