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 and to the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services, among other agencies. 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.) The next highest over-estimate was for the Department of Defense, which received approximately 21% of the budget in 2007 and was estimated on average to receive approximately 33%.
In other words, respondents believed NASA’s budget approaches that of the Department of Defense, which receives almost 38 times more money (see “Putting NASA’s budget in perspective”, The Space Review, July 2, 2007). Once people were informed of the actual allocations, they were almost uniformly surprised. Our favorite response came from one of the more vocal participants, who exclaimed, “No wonder we haven’t gone anywhere!”
No wonder, indeed!