Who Supports Government Space Programs?

Written by Andrew Gelman on Monday January 2, 2012

After quoting from a speech where a Republican presidential candidate praises the space program, Mark Palko writes:

I [Palko] don't know what the reaction of the crowd was (the reporting wasn't that detailed) but I'd imagine it was friendly. You can usually get a warm response from a Republican crowd by coming out in favor of manned space exploration which is, when you think about, strange as hell.

If you set out to genetically engineer a program that libertarians ought to object to, you'd probably come up with something like the manned space program. A massive government initiative, tremendously expensive, with no real role for individual initiative. Compared to infrastructure projects the benefits to business are limited. . . . There have been efforts in libertarian-leaning organs (The Wall Street Journal, Reason, John Tierney's New York Times columns) trying to argue that interplanetary exploration can be done on the cheap. These usually rely heavily on the blatant low-balling of Robert Zubrin . . . but even if we were to accept these numbers, it's still difficult to reconcile this kind of government program with libertarian values.

We can break this into three questions:

1. Do conservative libertarian Republicans actually support the space program?

2. Is support for the space program stronger among this group than among liberals and Democrats?

3. If the answer to 1 and 2 is Yes, what gives? How can we understand this pattern in the context of the apparent contradictions with anti-government ideology?

Here goes:

1. According to Gallup, 58% of Americans surveyed in 2009 answered Yes to the question, "It is not 40 years since the United States first landed men on the moon. Do you think the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs, or don't you think so?" The percentage has gradually increased over the past three decades. 60% of respondents think that funding for the space program should be increased or kept at the current level, and "58% of Americans say NASA is doing an excellent (13%) or good (45%) job."

Gallup reports that, paradoxically (but, unfortunately, unsurprisingly), "The high point in support for current or larger funding levels for NASA was 76% in January 1986, immediately after the space shuttle Challenger disaster."

The space program is more popular among younger people and among college graduates.

2. We use National Election Study data to examine the correlations among many different issues, including space exploration, in my paper with Delia. The correlation between attitudes on "federal spending on space" with party identification or political ideology is about 0.1. (Just to calibrate, attitudes toward defense spending question is correlated at about 0.3 with party ID and ideology, while a question about school prayer has correlations close to zero.)

3. So, support for the space program does not seem particularly associated with conservative or Republican positions. (It would require further analysis to examine correlation with economically libertarian attitudes but I expect that if someone did the work, he or she would find a low correlation there as well.)

But I do think I know what Palko was getting at. High-tech space exploration, like high-tech military, high-tech nuclear power, high-tech agriculture, and high-tech education, does seem popular among conservative libertarian writers (not just John Tierney, but he's as good an example as any). On the other side, high-tech solar and wind power, high-tech energy conservation, and high-tech communication and networking seem more popular on the left.

My quick response is that political ideologies are interesting but ultimately you can't make sense of them: any given person's views are a many-possibilitied tangle.

But maybe there's something here. A good start might be this classic bit from P. J. O'Rourke:

We are the Republican Party Reptiles. We look like Republicans, and think like conservatives, but we drive a lot faster and keep vibrators and baby oil and a video camera behind the stack of sweaters on the bedroom closet shelf. I think our agenda is clear. We are opposed to: government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear power, busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don't have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N., taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men. We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don't find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Nastassia Kinski, Star Wars (and anything else that scares the Russkis), and a firm stand on the Middle East (raze buildings, burn crops, plow the earth with salt, and sell the population into bondage).

There are thousands of people in America who feel this way, especially after three or four drinks. If all of us would unite and work together, we could give this country ... well, a real bad hangover.

It you think the U.S. is great, that leads to supporting a strong military. And the space program has a strong military connection. As does military power. And this fits in with a libertarian attitude, to the extent that it is focused on the international expansion of capitalism, and to the extent that military contractors are seen as having the virtues attributed to private business.