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Mars rover will.i.am 'cast: A depressing day for space and technology

Interplanetary voyages: Boring compared to pop, obviously

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Comment Picture this. Deep in the incalculable vastness of space, sparse clouds of gas and dust coalesce over uncounted millions of years. At the centre of the resulting disc, gravity rams matter together with such force that a fusion flame is kindled: a small yellow star - a tiny pinprick of light against the black and infinite void - is born.

Around the tiny fire, yet tinier motes of orbiting matter appear: the planets. Millions more years pass, and on the surface of the third minuscule speck a strange environment of liquid water appears. Over the aeons, strange moulds and slimes gradually evolve into complex life and animals, which spread across the tiny globe and then, usually, die out or are superseded.

Finally, one lifeform develops a large brain and gripping hands. Development proceeds slowly at first - the lifeform soon grasps primitive tools and harnesses the burning of carbon fuel with oxygen, but nothing much happens for a million years more. Then agriculture: and thousands of years more pass with only basic advances.

But now, the life burgeoning across the tiny speck orbiting the tiny flame is beginning to look outward. It begins to realise that an unbelievably vast universe lies beyond its tiny solar system and its yet-tinier home planet.

Finally, after millennia, the humans begin to painfully acquire tools better than iron, power sources more puissant than burning hydrocarbons. Reasonably powerful information-handling electronics, modern alloys, a limited grasp of fission power are acquired. Briefly, the humans lift their eyes to the skies: by expending a very small fraction of its revenues the most powerful tribe manages to send a handful of its people on short visits to the home planet's moon - the nearest astronomical body - before slumping back into apathy.

For decades there is stagnation. Few serious improvements take place in any form of technology. People become willing to place hardware into local space around their tiny dust mote voluntarily, but almost entirely for the purposes of watching the planet beneath, determining their exact location on that planet - or, tellingly, for the purpose of transmitting audiovisual entertainment to each other.

As the years pass, however, the bureaucracy which launched the moon missions manages to spend some of its budget on things other than offices and facilities on the ground. A few limited robotic missions are sent out.

Finally, a slightly more serious effort is made. A large nuclear-powered rover robot is built, one which will have enough energy to move about at a decent pace on another planet, to carry out useful surveys - and to communicate with the home world comparatively lavishly.

The big rover requires new and daring landing technology: this is developed. Many other breakthroughs take place. The rover is launched after years of effort, travels through space, and successfully sets down on Mars. It is perhaps the most significant reaching-out into the void by the self-obsessed crustal life of Earth since the moon missions. At last, humanity perhaps begins again to look out into the universe beyond its own microscopically tiny purlieu.

Or does it?

One of the first tasks of the new rover is, in fact, to - completely pointlessly - retransmit a pop song back to Earth, as though it were nothing more than another TV satellite in geostationary orbit. It seems that, in the judgement of NASA (and they may not be wrong) nobody is interested in a magnificent, unparalleled feat of engineering that has landed a powerful robot on another actual planet ... unless there's a new pop song involved.

"I can think of no greater way to honor NASA pioneer Neil Armstrong's life and legacy," said ex-astronaut Leland Melvin, announcing the retransmission, apparently with a straight face.

We also learn:

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden addressed the crowd in a video message encouraging students to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

But in fact will.i.am himself doesn't care for the term STEM. He's all about STEAM.

"Today is about inspiring young people to lead a life without limits placed on their potential and to pursue collaboration between humanity and technology through STEAM education," he tells us. "I know my purpose is to inspire young people, because they will keep inspiring me back."

STEAM? Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, of course.

How very depressing. STEM just isn't cool enough, not even when it involves a nuclear raygun robot exploring Mars. People simply can't raise their eyes to the skies for more than a minute before focusing in again on really interesting stuff, like the latest tunes. ®

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