WASHINGTON – The public is evenly split on President Bush's plan to build a space station (search) on the moon and eventually send astronauts to Mars (search), according to an Associated Press poll. That's similar to the way Americans felt more than 35 years ago about the first efforts to land men on the moon.
A new Associated Press poll finds that more than half say it would be better to spend the money on domestic programs rather than on space research.
Asked whether they favored the United States expanding the space program the way Bush proposes, 48 percent backed the idea and the same number opposed it, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.
The 1960s program to put an astronaut on the moon met with a similar mixed response. A Harris poll taken in 1967 found people were about evenly divided on plans to send an astronaut to the moon. The U.S. space program finally landed men on the moon's surface in July 1969.
Most respondents in the AP-Ipsos poll said they generally support continuing to send humans into space.
However, given the choice of spending money on programs like education and health care or on space research, 55 percent said they wanted domestic programs. Based on previous estimates for a moon-Mars initiative, the space cost would run in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
"You can't have a war, cut taxes, have the economy in a garbage pail and spend billions going into space," said Dallas Hodgins, 76, a retired University of Michigan researcher from Flint, Mich. "How are they going to pay for all this?"
On Wednesday, Bush is scheduled to spell out details of his proposal to use an outpost on the moon as a jumping off point for more remote destinations such as Mars or asteroids.
Those most likely to favor the plan to expand space exploration were men, young adults, people with more education and those with higher incomes.
It made a difference who was said to be behind the plan. When half the poll sample was asked about a "Bush administration" plan to expand space exploration instead of the "United States" plan, opposition increased.
Just over half of Democrats' opposed the plan by "the United States." Once it was identified as a "Bush administration" plan, Democrats opposed it by a 2-to-1 margin.
Some have suggested that space exploration could be expanded more inexpensively using robots instead of astronauts to explore the moon or other planets. The AP-Ipsos poll indicated that option was popular, with 57 percent favoring exploring the moon and Mars with robots and 38 percent saying humans.
Despite the mixed response about the moon-Mars proposal, general support for space exploration (search) remains strong.
Even after people were reminded of a shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts last February, three-fourths said the United States should continue to send humans into space.
Administration officials say the president will call for the retirement of the space shuttles by the end of this decade to make way for the next generation of spacecraft.
For many people, the proposal to go back to the moon and beyond arouses the same sense of exploration and adventure the space program captured in its earliest days.
"I think it's a great idea," said Paula Steiner, 52 of Jacksonville, Fla. "It's human nature. There's always been an instinct in human beings to explore to see what's going on elsewhere."
Three-fourths in the poll said they thought it was important for the United States to be the leading country in the world in the exploration of space. Still, only 29 percent of those polled said it was "very important."
The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was taken Friday through Sunday and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.