The Orlando Sentinel has commissioned a public opinion poll about the public's attitude toward NASA. At first reading, it's not good news for the agency, or for those who want NASA to send people to Mars.

However, I think that it's potentially great news for our nation's future in space — I'll explain why in a minute.

There are some nice graphics with the piece as well.

In the first one, people expressed their view of what NASA's purpose should be. Research and development was by far the most popular (though it's hard to know if people really understand what this means). The bad news for Marsaholics is that only nine percent support a mission to the Red Planet. There's more support, 11 percent, for a total disbanding of the agency.

The second one shows that of all federal programs that might need cutting for war or budget purposes, more people (37 percent) think that NASA should be on the chopping block than any other federal area. Tax cuts come in number two, at 26 percent.

And just to put things in budgetary perspective, there's a graph of spending on NASA as percentage of the federal budget for the past four decades. There was a big spike during the Apollo program of about 4 percent of the budget (also, recall that the budget was much smaller then, relative to the economy), after which it's settled down to a steady one percent or so, year after year.

This last is significant because, among the many other things that most people don't understand about NASA, they're unaware of how little of the federal budget it actually is. You could completely zero it, and it would only provide enough funds to provide Health and Human Services with funding for a few days. This showed up in similar polls that we used to do when I worked at Rockwell International, in which large numbers of people would guess that NASA took up to half of the federal budget.

However, as little as it is, it is not to say that the money is well spent. And the real problem with this poll (like most polls) is the "false choice" aspect of it. For instance, they didn't ask about the moon. They didn't ask about public space travel. But one might infer from the overwhelming support for "research and development" that the public might hope that the program would provide something useful, and that they recognize that pure science and exploration cannot justify the budget.

If NASA can present a compelling vision as to how the space program would actually impact individual lives, I see a potential opening here for a renaissance of space. What these polls need to do is to stop asking, vicariously, what NASA should do, and instead ask the people themselves, "What do you want to do in space?"

When they have the answer to that question, they may have the basis for some kind of policy direction.

Norm Mineta Knows Best

There was a story on National Public Radio this week about air marshals who tried to have first-class passengers put off the plane when they arrived late for a flight, so they could sit in their seats.

But regardless of the facts of this particular case, what really fried me was the story ending. The reporter said that there's an inherent tension between the government, which wants to fight terrorism, and the airlines, which want to generate revenue.

She really said it, just like that. As though the airline has no intrinsic interest in fighting terrorism, as though they'd cheerfully set up charter flights full of Al Qaeda operatives, even help them plan the flight, from takeoff to skyscraper, as long as they got paid. She got it precisely reversed, of course. The airlines are taking a balanced approach — they are interested in both fighting terrorism and staying in business, whereas the government, at least if we are to judge by its actions, has no interest in the financial health of the industry whatsoever.

This reminds me of the old argument about how we need more government regulation on aircraft maintenance and procedures, because in its absence, the airlines would cut corners, and skimp, and crash airplanes, and kill people.

It never seems to occur to these nimrods that crashing airplanes is bad for business. For some unaccountable reason, people don't like to fly on airlines whose planes fall out of the sky with any regularity. Insurance carriers won't give very good rates to airlines whose airplanes have to be replaced often. Airlines will have trouble hiring employees who feel that they're taking their lives in their hands on every trip.

No one has more incentive than an airline to make an aircraft safe, whether from mechanical failure, or from nutballs with box cutters.

On the other hand, government bureaucrats will fanatically seek safety, to the exclusion of all else, including the rights of passengers and their willingness to tolerate the disastrous state of air travel today, because they know that if there is another hijacking, they'll be blamed, particularly now that air security has been made a federal responsibility.

But no bureaucrat will suffer if an airline goes under — there are too many other excuses that they can use to deflect blame.

And no bureaucrat will lose his job because of marketing trips not made, hands not shaken, deals not done, acquaintances not made, wealth and jobs not created, because it's just gotten to be too annoying for productive people to fly. But the damage to the economy will continue unabated and silently.

This is another reason why the federalization of this function has been, and is going to continue to be, so disastrous for the industry — there's no counterbalance to the madness.

Celestial Showtime

A new comet has been discovered. It should put on a decent show for us in the northern latitudes in April. It's already (barely) visible to the naked eye.

Most of my e-mail on last week's column was on my commentary on Andrea Yates. Since they just came down with the verdict (with which I disagree) and are going to sentence her later this week, it seems appropriate to put up a few of them.

Julie Sichi writes:

I agree with your assessment of Andrea Yates. You put it well. But apparently here in the land of the human rights movement, we don't know that it's wrong to kill our own children. The law cheerfully permits us to take their lives — as long as they have not been completely born. There are even those who encourage it. Witness the "compassionate" offer of free abortions to those who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 tragedy. What a way to remember a lost husband, huh?

Peggy Dennis says:

I am glad to finally see someone address the real issue in the Yates case. The issue is not the "religious right," "home schooling" or "feminism." The issue here is this woman's mental health or, in this case, lack of mental health. As you so aptly put it "she's mad as a hatter." I loved that her psychiatrist informed the court that two days before she murdered her children, Andrea Yates said she was feeling ok. I'm sure there are plenty of people in institutions who think they are perfectly sane but are still a danger to themselves and/or to others.

And the obviously agitated John Yeaman opines:

Andrea Yates should be put to death. It simply is not important that she was sane or insane at the time of the murder of her five children. They are just as dead. And, since it does not seem that important to the news media that such young children are gone, why the bother over her fate? Do you see these deaths as a woman's "right to choose?" I say, do Yates and society a favor, and put her to rest. Inject her man! It's a whole lot better treatment than her children got from her. True evil does exist and you can hide it in insanity or whatever. But, it is no less evil. When I think of the struggle and probably pleading that those children went through, it makes me sick!

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity, and beyond at his webblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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