By Zaina Adamu, CNN
Carol Beckles isn't buying into all the space exploration hype. She’s a single, middle-class mother of three living in a modest, cozy three-bedroom home in Atlanta’s suburbs. She foots the college bill of her oldest daughter Tiffany, who – like her mom – wishes she got more government help to pay for tuition.
“It’s definitely hard. From the time that I was a senior (in high school) I had to start figuring out how I was going to pay for this,” said Tiffany who sits close beside her mom.
A mere mention of taxpayers’ dollars going to NASA makes Carol cringe. “I don’t see the use. What are we going out there to do?” she asked. CNN commenters often share these sentiments; one recently identified himself/herself as "waste of tax dollars."
It’s been asked since space exploration began in the late 1950s. Some people argue that some –- if not all –- funding for space exploration could be used to revitalize the economy, fix the education system, or solve undersea mysteries, among other Earth-related issues.
“We need to be researching the bottom of the oceans just as much,” said CNN’s space and science meteorologist Chad Myers. “There could be things at the bottom of the Earth that we don’t know about.”
According to a 2010 CNN/ORC poll, 50% of Americans agreed that the money spent for the space shuttle program - which ended last year - should be spent elsewhere. And in a 2009 Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who believe the U.S. space program should be scrapped jumped four points: From 4% to 8% in an 11-year period (1998-2009).
The numbers reveal that some question the purpose of space exploration. NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati said the government’s financial contribution to NASA has been beneficial to humans and will continue to set breakthroughs in technology.
“By sending astronauts to space and trying to understand their biological responses to space environment, we’ve learned a lot about understanding human beings,” said Abdalati. “A lot of the instrumentation in an emergency room, for example, is traceable to investments by NASA to monitor and understand human health and performance in a space-related environment.”
Human benefits from space exploration
The birth of the space age has spurred on a plethora of new ideas and ground-breaking technologies that are used in day-to-day living.
Health: During the early Apollo missions, scientists needed precise images of the moon’s surface in order to land the first man on the moon. In the 1960s, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory created digital image processing, an innovative technology that uses computers to enhance images of the moon. In the medical field, scientists and researchers found that this technology could be used to enhance images of organs in humans. Today, digital image processing is used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging and CT scans.
Medicine: Before Dan Carter joined NASA in 1985, developing large amounts of protein crystal was a challenge. He and colleagues discovered that space-produced crystal could be used to make the atomic components of albumin(PDF), an essential human protein. They founded a called New Century Pharmaceuticals in 1997. Their findings helped lead to the development of a cancer drug combination approach and skin care products.
Information Technology: Captured by satellites, NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System collects and archives information of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and vegetation on a daily basis. The massive amount of data accumulated has reached 4.5 petabytes. That’s equivalent to completely filling 90 million four-drawer file cabinets with paper, according to NASA’s 2010 “Spinoff” publication(PDF). To provide convenient access to the large data repositories, NASA partnered with Archivas Inc. to create a high-tech software program that can hold large amounts of information. Hospitals, cell-phone providers, businesses and organizations now use this same technology to store information.
Communications: Satellites play an instrumental role in how we communicate and navigate the world. In the 1960s companies including AT&T and RCA partnered with NASA and other space agencies to build and place satellites in the Earth’s orbit. Global positioning systems, television networks, radio stations and cell-phone carriers are all dependent on satellites to keep the world connected.
GPS in particular arose as a result of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that launched in 1957. Changes in radio frequency helped U.S. scientists track where Sputnik was because of the Doppler effect - that is, a shift in the frequency of sound or light waves corresponds to a change in position. This principle led to a Navy navigation system called TRANSIT intended for submarines. GPS for continuous navigation was developed as a Defense Department initiative in the 1970s, leading to the launch of the first GPS satellite in 1978. The system was complete in 1995 (More about this from Time.com).
Environment: When the Saturn 1B launch stand (used in several Apollo missions) was disassembled, it was stored away in an open field. No one knew until years later that the launch stand was coated with a paint containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a toxic chemical that was seeping into the Earth’s soil. Quinn and her colleagues created the Activated Metal Treatment System (AMTS), a paste-like solvent solution that extracts PCBs from paint without removing the paint itself. The innovative system has been redesigned since then to remove many forms of contamination and pesticides on land.
Transportation: The parachute shrouds that landed the Vikings on Mars have a fibrous material used in automobile tires. These state-of-the-art tires were originally developed by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Now the tires, famously called radial tires, are manufactured in factories around the world. They are five times more durable than steel and have an expected tread life 10,000 miles greater than conventional tires.
Public safety: Those powerful rocket launchers that propel spacecrafts into deep space are now fighting fires. Rory Groonwald, chief engineer at Orbital Technologies Corporation, partnered with the U.S. Air Force Fire Rescue Research Group to design a similar high-pressured system that suppresses fires in seconds. The technology also reduces water usage because the extreme force creates fines water droplets as opposed to an excessive flow.
Memory foam: For anyone who gets a better night’s sleep from a foam mattress, NASA’s to thank. The administration originally developed the polyurethane-silicon plastic to reduce harsh impact when spacecrafts landed. Now the famed foam is used in everything from automobiles and airplanes to helmets and horseback saddles.
We also have advanced water filtration systems for astronauts as a result of the space program.
In 2012, NASA was allocated $18.7 billion(PDF) from the federal government (less than 1% of the entire U.S. budget) for further research and exploration. $3.8 billion of that will go specifically to space exploration. By comparison, the Department of Defense got $670 billion and another $69.8 billion went to education.
To put that in perspective, that’s 1.2% of a taxpayer’s total income going to science, space and technology programs while national defense and education receives 26.3% and 4.8% of taxpayers’ dollars, respectively.
Even with a limited budget (the smallest budget of any major agency), President Obama emphasized at a 2010 conference at the Kennedy Space Center that space exploration has been key to America’s position as a world leader.
“For pennies on the dollar, the space program has improved our lives, advanced our society, strengthened our economy, and inspired generations of Americans,” he said.
If re-elected, he plans to pump an additional $6 billion in NASA’s budget over the next three years.
Carol does not know for sure if Tiffany’s post-secondary education in business administration will lead her to a job in the field. She does know though, that the opportunities for her will be greater if she stays in college, so she said she will continue to invest in her daughter's education.
In the same way, said Abdalati, society must continue to invest in space exploration.
“There’s value to making these investments. It’s very easy to look at the challenges we face financially as a nation and consider alternative investments, but if we don’t carve out a small fraction of the national budget to support exploration, we lose something tremendously important and, in fact, we step back as a society.”
CNN's Elizabeth Landau contributed to this report