To riskily go

Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars, responds to the Select Committee's accusations of 'over-ambition'.

Timandra Harkness

Topics Science & Tech

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‘The failure of the Beagle 2 project highlighted the British National Space Centre Partnership’s poor risk management. In this case risks were exacerbated by an over-ambitious timetable, last-minute technical changes and uncertain funding. Ambitious projects like this should go ahead only if enough money has been made available up front and due allowance has been made for risk.’ (1)

These words from the UK Select Committee on Public Accounts’ report on Civil Space Activities were chosen to head the press release, published on 9 June, resulting in headlines pointing the finger at Beagle 2 as a disaster that should never have been allowed to happen. In fact, the report was intended as an assessment of whether all public spending on civil space activities offers value for money.

Beagle 2, named after the ship that took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos, a trip that led to his theory of evolution, was supposed to land on Mars on Christmas Day – 25 December – 2003. It was attached to the Mars Express, the European Space Agency’s space probe and Europe’s first mission to another planet, and was successfully ejected from Mars Express on 19 December 2003. After that, nothing more was heard. Beagle 2 seems to have vanished, and numerous inquiries have tried to explain what might have happened to it.

Yet considering that the entire cost of the Beagle 2 lander was under £50million over four years, it seems odd that a report on public spending on civil space activities should focus on that one mission. Around £40million of Beagle 2’s costs were public money, an average of £10million a year. In 2003/2004 the UK spent £188.6million of public money on civil space activities, leaving Beagle 2 at just over five per cent of that budget. Bear in mind, too, that UK expenditure on space is around 10 per cent of what the USA spends, per head of the population.

Those involved in the Beagle 2 mission are understandably quick to defend it. Alistair Scott of EADS Space, the main contractor, noted that the report, like previous reports in the press, ‘focused on the negative’. ‘Look at the success of Mars Express itself’, he said. Mars Express went on successfully to orbit Mars. ‘We did all the propulsion systems on that.’

It’s true that successful space missions with UK involvement often pass off with little media coverage, and that the government doesn’t rush to point them out as inspirational examples of British technological innovation. Mars Express itself has provided swathes of new data, including a discovery, published in the most recent issue of Nature (9 June), of unique auroral phenomena on Mars. Tucked away in a tiny paragraph in the committee’s own report is praise for MOSAIC, a satellite system whose financial rewards alone have outstripped all hopes.

But even if we do focus on Beagle 2, the lost lander, the picture is not as bleak as it’s being painted. ‘Beagle isn’t a waste of money because the technology is still here’, says Alistair Scott. ‘Almost everything we need to go there again, we’ve now developed. We went in at twice the speed we were designed for – if we get the speed right, we’ll be all right next time.’ He supports the view that the Martian atmosphere was less dense than expected, rendering the parachutes and airbags useless.

There are technical reasons why Beagle 2 never phoned home, and there are also institutional ones. Regarded as a scientific instrument, not a spacecraft, Beagle 2 escaped the rigorous round of checks to which Mars Express was subject. All constraints – time, size, weight – were extremely tight. The weight allowance was reduced by the European Space Agency (ESA) from 200kgs to 60kgs, necessitating a complete redesign.

Professor Colin Pillinger, whose personal commitment drove the mission, responds to the committee’s criticism of an ‘over-ambitious timetable’ dryly. ‘I can’t change celestial mechanics – the planets go around the sun.’ The opportunity only arose in 1999, when an earlier mission failed, and the 2003 launch window was the best, says Pillinger, ‘for 60,000 years’. Government committees might ask for more risk assessment, but time and planetary orbits wait for no man.

He also thinks they have a completely unrealistic attitude to risk assessment. ‘I don’t think they appreciated that of all the missions that have tried to get to Mars, only one third have got there. America has a 50 per cent success rate. The Russians have never done it. The Japanese failed last year like we did.’

He says he asked the committee what they thought Beagle 2’s chances of success were. ‘About 60 per cent’, came the reply, which is about twice the average success rate. So what chance would have been acceptable to the committee? ‘Ninety-five per cent.’ It’s hard to get a condom that reliable, never mind a spaceship. As Alistair Scott commented, ‘I’d love this committee to have sat on something similar about the internet, or mobile phones.’

Worryingly, both this report and the earlier joint ESA/UK report express fears that the failure of the mission would have a negative impact on public support for space science. ‘For future high-profile/high-risk projects, ESA and any Sponsoring Agency should manage the expectations of the outcome of the project in a balanced and objective way to prepare for both success and failure’, recommends the ESA report (2). In reality, public enthusiasm for space seems undimmed by occasional failures.

Given that the launch window was the best for 60,000 years, of course it’s a pity that one of the landers never got there. But it seems a bit rich to turn round at this stage and criticise the sending of an under-resourced attempt to explore another planet. Much of the stingy public funding that Beagle 2 did get was delivered in dribs and drabs, as rescue funding when commercial sponsorship failed to show. The question the committee should have asked is: why did the government not seize a unique opportunity before it was too late? Why wasn’t Beagle 2 properly funded from the start to maximise its chances of success against extraordinary odds?

Colin Pillinger is upbeat, telling me that the government has now put aside money, through the Office of Science and Technology, to contribute to a future Mars mission. ‘The British actually do want us to do this’, he says, and points to how much was achieved with so little financial backing. ‘We got within about 50 miles of the planet.’ The Select Committee on Public Accounts missed the mark by a lot more than that.

(1) Managing risk on space projects, Twenty-First Report, House of Commons Select Committee on Public Accounts, 2005

(2) Lessons learnt from Beagle 2 and plans to implement recommendations from the Commission of Inquiry, European Space Agency, 24 May 2004

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Topics Science & Tech


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