NASA just gave the University of Colorado at Boulder its largest research contract ever – to lead the mission that will launch an orbiting probe to Mars in 2013. The benefits of the nearly half-billion-dollar project are many: Every dollar spent on space exploration has an eightfold economic benefit; studying other planets helps us better understand our own; space expeditions are the 21st century-equivalent of Columbus’s voyages. And NASA’s $16 billion annual budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the $10 billion a month we spend in Iraq. Still, a half-billion dollars could help with some urgent problems down here on Earth. The National Priorities Project estimates that it could provide a year of health care for 165,000 people, or power 830,000 homes with renewable energy for a year, or build 2,200 affordable housing units.
But the study of Mars may still prove useful to Westerners: Our arid southern Utah desert is already used for Mars simulations, and that lifeless, dusty planet might foreshadow what’s in store for the rest of our region as the climate warms and dries.