Frequently heard from space program proponents is the lament, "Support for NASA is widespread, but only an inch deep." This widely held viewpoint is based on a decade's worth of survey research1.
However, recent research indicates that this conclusion, although accurate, masks a precisely opposite reality. That research points towards the existence of a large latent interest in NASA, and suggests practical means by which to access it by employing NASA'S new Space Exploration Vision to increase the American public's sense of personal ownership of the space program.
Discerning and assessing the problem
Since 1999, student teams competing in the annual national NASA Means Business Student Competition have gathered a wide range of data regarding the public's opinion of the space program. Methods employed have included direct surveys, mailed surveys, web surveys, focus groups and discussion groups. Those surveyed have included students, movie-goers, NASA employees, and randomly-selected members of the general public.
The research performed by the student teams revealed powerful and compelling clues as to what is behind America's broad, but shallow, support for space exploration. They include:
- People over 35 (in 2004) hold favorable opinions of NASA overall, due in large part to favorable memories of the Apollo program.
- People under 35 (in 2004) hold neutral or unfavorable opinions of NASA, due to more recent memories of NASA "failures," such as the original Hubble Telescope problems (which were not fully redeemed by the repair mission) and Challenger2.
- People in all age groups have a more positive opinion of undertaking human missions to Mars than they do of NASA itself.
- In people's minds, NASA should be pursuing international leadership in space, but (especially among college students) needs to improve its level of honesty and the intelligence of its decision-making.
- NASA's image as being "creative" needs improvement. When compared to Rolls Royce and Apple Computer, it lags behind. It is slightly ahead of Sears in this area.
- Respondents with a higher level of knowledge about NASA tend to have a more favorable opinion of it.
- Personally engaging, somewhat entertaining, experiences are necessary to convey the news of scientific discoveries. Among the most effective media for this are television and the World Wide Web.
- The most effective ways for NASA to build a stronger relationship with the public involve (a) providing personally relevant services, (b) increasing the sense of intimacy in the relationship, and (c) employing two-way interaction methods.
From this data the following conclusions have been drawn:
- NASA has been successful in communicating the reasons for space exploration, but has not done as well in relating those reasons to the expectations of its general public customers. Articulating NASA's accomplishments in terms of its customers' emotion-centered value expectations would produce more effective communication.
- The celebrated past of the U.S. space program has produced an unintended detrimental by-product: It has distanced NASA from its ultimate customers - everyday people. NASA is no longer the accessible symbol of human striving that it was when everyone knew the names, faces and background of "The Original Seven Astronauts." Gone is any trace of NASA's powerful 1960s image, "Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and completely in the open."
- There remains a great deal of latent good will, even enthusiasm, for the space program. This potential support can be made more "kinetic" by programs that effectively bring people closer, and more personally so, to the space program.
Responding to the problem
Confucius (among others) tells us that hearing, seeing and doing represent three methods of participation and typically produce different results when the goal is to develop an understanding in the person doing the hearing, seeing or doing. A reasonable corollary to Confucius might state that the level of effort required to hear and to be heard is less than that needed to see and to be seen. Similarly, where possible, doing yields the best results but is relatively difficult to deliver.
So, too, for optimizing and sustaining the public's understanding of and engagement in Project Constellation. Direct participation is best; and any activity that approximates direct participation is as effective at optimizing as it is close to actual participation.
The research suggests a new, challenging but do-able, task for NASA.
1See Yankelovich Partners, Inc. 1998. "Public opinion and the space program: understanding Americans' attitudes and developing a communication strategy for space." Public opinion survey by Yankelovich Partners for Boeing Company. See also Yankelovich Partners, Inc. 1995. "Public opinion and the space program: understanding Americans' attitudes and developing a communication strategy for space." October 1995. Public opinion survey by Yankelovich Partners for Rockwell International.
2 Our survey data on this issue predates the Columbia accident.