WASHINGTON - Sixty percent of Americans are willing to spend what it takes to build a new type of manned spaceship to replace the aging shuttle, according to an Orlando Sentinel poll.
Despite the Columbia disaster and a highly critical report released last week by the accident's investigators, public support for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration remains high.
The survey found that 81 percent of Americans consider space exploration very important or somewhat important to the country's future.
That's a 7 point increase from a survey conducted in February last year - and a 6 point increase from a poll taken immediately after the Columbia broke up over Texas on Feb. 1. Washington-based Ipsos-Public Affairs conducted all three national polls for the Sentinel.
More important, the new poll shows that Americans are prepared to support NASA with their pocketbooks. Besides their willingness to foot the bill for a new manned spaceship, 73 percent of respondents want to increase the agency's funding or at least keep it at the present level of roughly $15 billion a year. Those saying NASA deserves more money jumped to 29 percent - the highest level in a decade - up from 9 percent in February last year.
"The support for the program is unshaken," said Thomas Riehle, president of Ipsos, an international survey research firm. "It is as strong as ever, even in the aftermath of the event and the report. It's in our blood as Americans."
Public support for space exploration could prove crucial as Congress begins hearings this week to examine the future of the shuttle program. Besides helping determine the path for the shuttle fleet's return to flight - which NASA has tentatively scheduled for spring - the hearings could influence the direction and funding of U.S. human spaceflight for years to come.
"My own disposition is to continue manned spaceflight, but not at any cost and not at any risk," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee. "We have to find out what will be the cost, then we're going to have to make the policy."
One of the poll's most significant findings is the public's willingness to spend tax dollars on a shuttle replacement. According to estimates, that effort could cost more than $10 billion before a new spaceship is on the launchpad.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board's final report also concluded that the shuttle should be replaced.
"Because of the risks inherent in the original design of the space shuttle, because that design was based in many aspects on now-obsolete technologies, and because the shuttle is now an aging system but still developmental in character, it is in the nation's interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible," the report said. "It is the view of the board that the previous attempts to develop a replacement vehicle for the aging shuttle represent a failure of national leadership."
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that he wasn't surprised by the poll's findings, but that any effort to build a new vehicle likely would require the support of the White House.
"I think this is where NASA has to have leadership, and it has to come all the way from the top at the president," Nelson said. "If that kind of leadership is demonstrated, I think Congress would go along."
Polling shows that what Americans want from their space program has changed little, if any, between February last year and today.
NASA's primary mission should be research and development for U.S. industry, according to 33 percent of those surveyed in the latest poll and 35 percent in February last year. Close behind was research in low-Earth orbit aboard the shuttle and space station, mentioned by 26 percent in both polls.
Unmanned exploration of the universe ranked third, with support increasing from 16 percent in February last year to 19 percent in the latest poll, which surveyed 1,002 people nationwide during Aug. 27-28.
Also, Americans still think the shuttle program is worth the roughly $3.1 billion a year NASA has been spending on it. The percentage who feel that way increased from 54 percent in February last year to 57 percent in the week after the Columbia accident to 63 percent today.
But more ambitious human spaceflight plans don't have widespread support. Respondents continue to take a dim view of a much-discussed manned mission to Mars, although opposition has slightly decreased since February last year. Those who somewhat or strongly oppose such a mission dropped from 62 percent to 55 percent.
"I don't understand why we would go up there," said Shirley Elks, 64, of Vanceboro, N.C., one of those surveyed who opposed a Mars mission. "I don't know what benefit we would get from spending money to go there when we have lots of problems down here."
The public also remains split on a proposal that would use nuclear energy to power unmanned space probes. The latest poll shows that 49 percent strongly or somewhat support the measure, while 47 percent somewhat or strongly oppose it. That represents a significant swing from six months ago, when opponents led 48 to 39 percent.
This week's congressional hearings will explore NASA's criticized management practices and "broken" safety culture, which were detailed in the final report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that was released Tuesday.
The board concluded that Columbia was fatally damaged during launch by a chunk of foam that came loose from the shuttle's external tank and slammed into a wing. When Columbia re-entered the atmosphere 16 days later, hot gases got inside the breached wing and triggered the ship's breakup over Texas.
But the report said that NASA's "culture" was as responsible for the disaster as the foam. The board found that the agency is rife with overconfidence, communication problems and bureaucratic red tape that got in the way of sound engineering practices.
The poll suggests that much of the public had lost interest in the Columbia disaster by the time the report came out; only 32 percent said they were following the investigation closely, and 41 percent said they hadn't read or heard anything about the report.
But when told that NASA was faulted for having a climate that discouraged engineers from raising safety concerns, 49 percent of those polled said they had less confidence in the agency.
What's more, a majority said they expect NASA to repeat the mistakes that led to the Columbia tragedy and to lose another space shuttle and crew. Two-thirds of respondents feel that another shuttle tragedy is likely or almost certain to occur within the next seven years, up from 55 percent in February.
It is to be expected that people will have more doubts about the space agency immediately after the board's report, said Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society, an advocacy and educational group for space exploration.
But he expects the public to continue to stand behind NASA.
"In the end, what polling has consistently shown is that people are supportive of space exploration, but it's not as deep or passionate as they are about other issues," Chase said.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Sentinel staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.