I know that a lot of people have a hard time grasping large numbers. Our puny brains, so recently evolved, don't have a concrete example of a million, or a billion. We have a hard time past about 150!
So it doesn't surprise me that the U.S. budget is difficult to comprehend, totaling $2.7 trillion. Still, I can't quite wrap my head around the fact that the average American thinks that NASA gets 1/4 of the U.S. total budget:
Americans in general have no idea what NASA's "cost" is. In fact, most members of the public have no idea how much any government agency's budget is. What we do know -- and have recently documented -- is that the public perception of NASA's budget is grossly inflated relative to actual dollars. In a just-completed study, we asked respondents what percentage of the national budget is allocated to NASA ... NASA's allocation, on average, was estimated to be approximately 24% of the national budget (the NASA allocation in 2007 was approximately 0.58% of the budget.)
A lot of people think NASA is a waste of time and money, and maybe this is why; they have a grossly overinflated idea of how much NASA spends. When NASA loses a $150 million probe, that's a lot of real money, but hardly a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend as a nation (and remember, we spend $11 million per hour in Iraq).
I've written about this before, on what NASA does with its paltry percentage. NASA faces a clear issue here: they do an incredible amount of work and exploration with a small amount of money. People think that they don't do very much at all and spend vast amounts of money. All NASA needs to do is educate the public on their real budget. Once it's put into perspective, really made clear, I bet public support for NASA would go way up.
To be sure, a huge amount of NASA's budget is wasted (I am not a big supporter of the space station or the Shuttle because of cost and mission, though I do not deny how cool they are), and that is a priority. But at the same time, if they could get the public to truly understand how little of the national budget they get, they might be able to actually get them to rally behind a real project, like getting back to the Moon, or building even better probes to the planets, moon, comets, and asteroids in our solar system -- not to mention building bigger and more sensitive telescopes that can see the Universe across the electromagnetic spectrum.
I remember hearing a talk by a Hubble scientist years ago, and he said that if you download two or three Hubble images and use them to decorate your office or as a desktop wallpaper, you've gotten your money's worth out of the telescope. I think he made a really good point. Exploration, science, understanding, beauty: the price on these is small, and it's even smaller than most people think!