In a recent survey respondents said they thought NASA gets about 25% of the total U.S. budget. It really is about half of one percent!

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!

Want to live longer? Go To Iraq!

The University of Pennsylvania just published a report in Population and Development Review coauthored by Samuel Preston and Emily Buzzell with surprising findings.

One is that the death rate overall for troops in Iraq is less than half the death rate for the U.S. civilian population when all ages are included. Navy and Air Force personnel serving in Iraq have lower death rates than comparable civilians at home. Go figure.

They also found that the death rate for deployed Marines in Iraq is 8.59 per thousand per year, more than twice that of the Army, nine times that of the Navy and 20 times that of the Air Force.

The death risk analysis is based on 2,706 deaths among U.S. troops in Iraq from March 20, 2003, when the first occurred, to Sept. 30, 2006. Risks relative to service, rank, race and other factors are based on deployments and outcomes through Nov. 30, 2006

What Do You Call A Comet With No Tail?

Comet 17P/Holmes is now visible to the naked eye, and an even more striking sight if you use binoculars or a telescope.

Nobody is sure why, probably trapped gas*, but this particular cosmic iceball flared to become a million times brighter in just 2 days.

Everyone associates comets with a long curved tail, but this one doesn't have one. Still, it's easy to spot from even a city location and distinctly un-starlike. Even low-power binoculars reveal a ghostly smudge surrounding a bright center.

In early May the comet reached its closest point to the Sun in its 6.88-year orbit, and that was when it should have been most visible as the Sun cooked off trapped gases and melted ice. But nothing happened. But then, as the comet moved further away from the Sun, it amazed everyone when it suddenly brightened.

Put a kettle on the stove and it doesn't boil. Take off and suddenly it does. Weird.

Thanks to our orbit on the inside track, today (November 5th), we've caught up to it some, and we'll be as close as we're going to get to it as the comet heads back out to the outer reaches of the solar system.

To see it, look northeast about 30° above the horizon (unless you're in Alaska) at 9 P.M. It should appear about twice as high as the bright star Capella. It will climb almost directly overhead between 2 and 3 A.M. Best of all, the waning crescent Moon remains out of sight for the next week or so until after 1 A.M.

*What's the difference between a tavern and an elephant passing wind? One's a bar room, the other is a BAROOM! Auntie Marion's favorite joke. Her second favorite (she had a thing about elephants) was about a guy waving a rag over his head. Fellow says, "Golly, why are you doing that?" Guy says, "Keep elephants away." Fellow says, "But there aren't any elephants around here." Guys says, "Works good don't it!"

So what do you call a comet with not tail? Spot.