QUOTE (DonPMitchell @ Sep 25 2006, 02:33 PM)
Personally I think the difference is that ESA is embedded in the comfortable burocracy of the European Union. They simply do not have to care about public opinion -- it has less connection to their funding. NASA has a much larger budget, and it has to answer to congress for that money every year. It is not a foregone conclusion that they will keep getting it.
Also space programs are instruments for building national identity, and pan-European nationalism is still a work in progress. As such the ESA is probably considered important in Brussels.
I think your general sentiments are correct, but remember that ESA and the EU are not one and the same. Clearly there's a big overlap in membership, but there are several countries that are members of one body and not of the other (e.g. Norway).
I wouldn't go so far as saying that ESA don't have to care about public opinion; they clearly benefit funding-wise in the long-term from high-profile, successful missions that the general public have heard about. As you implied, there's an extra layer separating ESA from the taxpayers compared to the US though, which insulates them to a certain degree.
The national funding agencies of the ESA member states do a lot of the publicity themselves, highlighting their separate contributions to various missions. The degree to which these agencies do that varies considerably. PPARC in the UK, for example, regard a commitment to public communication of the work they're funding as very important in awarding grants to e.g., university research groups. In some other countries, there is no such official requirement for results to be reported to the general public.
As the body responsible for entire missions, and hence the release of relevant data, I agree that ESA could be doing much more, and would benefit in the long-term from doing so. Maybe things would change if individual member states were to specifically require in return for their funding support some regular, fairly high-profile public updates from ESA on missions' progress, together with timely (though not premature) data releases.