Getting the best out a bad poll

[Another catchup post.]

About a week ago ABC News published the results a poll about space tourism, among other space-related topics, with the key takeaway point that four in ten people woule be willing to fly in space for at least some amount of money. ABC also published the complete poll questionnaire and detailed results.

Unfortunately, the poll itself is not that useful for determining actual levels of public interest in space tourism. For example, the poll makes no effort to discern among suborbital, orbital, and other (like circumlunar) forms of space tourism; it merely asks, “If you had a chance in your lifetime to travel in outer space, would you do so, or not?” The various price points selected are also highly unrealistic, with the lowest (excluding zero) being “$1-499″ and the highest being $20,000+”. Given that even the biggest proponents of space tourism see those prices coming down to the $20,000-30,000 range only after several years—at least—of operations, those price points need to be recalibrated. Also, there’s no evidence that the polling firm tried to restrict the respondents to those wealthy enough to be reasonably able to afford such flights (not surprising given the price points they selected.)

Still, there are a few nuggets of information in the poll, in part because these questions have apparently been posed in previous surveys. Here, the responses are mixed for space tourism proponents. The poll found that 65 percent believed that it was definitely or probably likely that “in the years ahead ordinary people will travel in outer space”, compared to 33 percent who answered “probably not” or “definitely not”. That compares to 57 percent who answered in the affirmative and 41 percent in the negative in a 1999 poll (which asked about the chances for such flights “in the next 50 years” versus “in the years ahead”). However, the results show a declining trend in terms of people who would actually want to fly themselves: the 39 percent who said they wanted to fly in 2008 is down from 41 percent in August 1999 and 47 percent in April 1998.

The results also provided some demographic breakouts. The poll found that 54 percent of men said they wanted to fly in space, but only 25 percent of women. (It would be interesting to compare this with the statistics of actual customers signed up by companies like Virgin Galactic.) Only 19 percent of those over 65 years old want to fly, but 56 percent of those in the 18-34 age group said yes. And people with higher incomes were more likely to say yes.

I have a clear bias here, since I was involved tangentially in the original Futron-Zogby survey in 2002 that many in the industry still consider to be the gold standard for space tourism market research. However, as much as I would like to see another survey done to see how levels of interest in space tourism have evolved over the last six years, this ABC poll isn’t it.

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