Polls of Future Past: A History of Public Expectations for the Future of Science

January 8, 2015 5:48 AM

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When Gallup first asked Americans in 1949 whether they expected man to reach the Moon in the next 50 years, only 15 percent said yes. Despite the shocking power of new wartime technologies like the atom bomb, the public remained skeptical about the idea of space travel. Just six years later the proportion saying man would be on the Moon in 50 years more than doubled. By 1959, after the launch of the first satellite, more than half the country expected a Moon landing within just 20 years.

The Moon landing was somewhat atypical of the way that scientific progress and public perceptions normally interact, in that acceleration in perception kept step fairly well with technological progress. The space race instigated by the Russian launch of Sputnik focused public attention on the major ...

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