CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Most Americans still think their country should play a dominant role in space exploration, a new poll showed on Thursday as the 30-year U.S. space shuttle program came to an end.
The national survey released by CNN confirmed, however, that enthusiasm about the space race had declined considerably since the early 1960s and the glorious run-up to the Apollo Moon landings.
The poll was made public hours after Thursday's landing of space shuttle Atlantis, which drew a line under the end of the American shuttle program. This has raised widespread doubts about future U.S. dominance in space.
According to the poll, half of all Americans believe the end of the shuttle program was bad for the United States, since it left the superpower with no immediate program to push ahead with human spaceflight.
Sixty-four percent of respondents said it was important for the United States to be ahead of Russia and other countries in space exploration. But only 38 percent ranked space leadership as "very important," down from 51 percent in a similar poll conducted in 1961, CNN said.
The latest poll was carried out by CNN/ORC International.
China, among other countries, is making major investments in space. With the retirement of the American shuttles, the United States will now depend on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station.
Three-quarters of participants in the telephone poll said they wanted the United States to develop a new spacecraft capable of carrying U.S. astronauts back into space.
But at a time of dwindling government resources and concern about a permanent decline in the U.S. economy, most of those polled said they would prefer that private enterprise rather than a government program develop the new spacecraft.
Critics of the U.S. space shuttle program have often described it as a colossal waste of resources.
(Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Paul Simao)