A higher number, nearly three-fourths, said they think the space program is a good investment, according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pennsylvania.
"I'm very proud of it," David Wines, a 46-year-old carpenter from upstate New York, said of the U.S. space exploration program. "I think that it shows the rest of the world that we're not afraid to go out to places that are unknown and find out what's out there."
Enthusiasm for the program of space exploration was greater among younger adults, those with more education and those with higher incomes. Whites were more likely than blacks and men were more likely than women to think the shuttle should continue to fly.
The strong support continues even after the fiery disintegration of Columbia in February and the grounding of the remaining shuttles during an investigation into the cause of the accident that killed the crew of seven astronauts.
That investigation, by an independent board, has pointed to a 1½-pound chunk of foam insulation breaking off from the shuttle's fuel tank during liftoff and slamming into the leading edge of the left wing. The resulting crevice in the wing allowed super-hot gases to penetrate the shuttle during its re-entry into the atmosphere.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe says the agency already is addressing issues raised by the accident. Earlier this month, he told reporters the agency is looking toward a return to space in six to nine months.
While support for the space program and the shuttle consistently at two-thirds or more, people are more divided on the question of sending a human to Mars. Support for that proposal was at 49 percent, while 42 percent opposed it. Men were almost twice as likely as women to think that sending someone to Mars was a good idea.
"We can go there after all the things wrong on Earth are fixed," said Betty Collatrella, a retiree from Caldwell, New Jersey. "I'm totally against any of it. It's a total waste of money we need for our kids, for illnesses, could put somebody's kids through college, could cure so many diseases."
The poll of 1,034 adults was taken July 11-15 and carries an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
While the public generally supports the space program and the shuttle, there are growing doubts about the wisdom of sending civilians like teachers and journalists on shuttle missions.
More than half, 56 percent, said they believe civilians should be allowed to participate in shuttle missions, while 38 percent said they should not. Right after the Challenger disaster in 1986, which also killed seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, nearly two-thirds said civilians should be allowed to participate.
The shuttle program is a source of pride for many. Jennifer Rogers, whose father was in the Air Force and met some of the early astronauts, said she remembers seeing a shuttle launch as a young child.
"We have a great military and a great nation," said the 26-year-old resident of Springfield, Ohio. "We shouldn't stop the space program because of two tragedies."
Among the relatively small group, about one in five, who don't think the space program is a good investment are those who can't see the point of spending billions of dollars on space flight, and even some who don't believe it's a genuine program.
"I think it's all bogus," said Claudette Davidson of Jonesboro, Georgia, who does accounting work for physicians. "I just do not believe they've gone to the moon."
"I saw Capricorn One," she said, referring to a 1978 movie that featured O.J. Simpson and included a faked trip to Mars. "That did it for me."
By Will Lester