As someone who's early childhood coincided with the boom in manned spaceflight and later went on to have the early part of my career as an engineer in unmanned and manned space flight programs for commercial, NASA, and DoD applications, I'm certainly a bit skewed toward the value of space flight development. But I feel at this point some of the priorities across the board are somewhat misplaced and that we should really be looking at how monies should be most effectively allocated.
I'd keep NASA's budget about the same, but would like to see them reduce the spending on deep space and moon-based initiatives somewhat and refocus those monies into near space efforts including a greater focus on earth sciences. As a related element, I think NOAA should not be a separate agency and should be combined with NASA to create a more effective agency focused on planetary science and exploration which includes our own planet. The issues of clean air and water are going to become severe in the future if we do not do more to address the degradation caused by a continually growing global population, and we need to seed the science now.
On the defense side, I feel there is has been too much pork barrel politics in our defense budget allocation that results in enormous monies spent on areas that really aren't making our nation or the rest of the world more secure. This issue certainly isn't new and it's massive growth can be traced back to Eisenhower's warnings of the military industrial complex, but it does seem that this problem is even more entrenched now. I would re-prioritize the defense spending to focus better on the threat needs for the next 10 years and reduce the overall defense budget by dropping the efforts that aren't aligned with the greatest priorities.
Taking that money saved from defense, I would reallocate it to a combination of increased spending in climate studies and earth sciences, health services, and nationwide infrastructure including not only hard infrastructure like highways and bridges but also telecommunications infrastructure like broadband for all.
On a related note, I always get perturbed when I hear people complain that we should cut spending in things like defense and space and instead use it to create jobs. Where do these people think the money is going to? Those expensive space and defense programs cost money because it goes to people working on those programs - it is a jobs program. And the costs spent on engineers, scientists, etc. is very highly leveraged in creating further jobs. I recall studies that indicate that normal job creation is leveraged by about 2 to 3x, i.e. one job created also creates 2 to 3 other jobs in the process (for example grocers to feed people, builders to build their homes, etc.). But the highly paid professional jobs such as those on NASA programs has a highly leverage of up to 5x. When we fund a NASA program that employs 1000 people, we're really creating 5000 jobs in the process.
OK, off my soapbox now.......
Thanks Clambake, great post! Like most of you, I voted #3, that space exploration should be a priority. All exploration, science, and discovery should be top priorities, and space happens to be how far we've gotten to this point. If we "give up" who knows what discoveries we will miss?