Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

5 JULY 2004


  Q1 Chairman: Thank you very, very much for coming along. Beagle has fascinated us all for some time and we are very interested in asking you a few questions about the project and the future and so on. Thank you all for coming, because I know you have all played a major part in the project. It is not our remit, although some Ministers might like it, to go out to Mars as a committee and look for the thing; we are not trying to find Beagle or anything like that or exactly why it failed really. We have seen the report of the commission of inquiry and looked at the issue through that. We understand the restrictions that are placed on parts of that. We are really interested, as guardians of the public money, as a select committee, to know how it was used in support of the project, looking at how any similar missions might be supported by the government in the future, the lessons to learn, the research community in future that would be involved in it, and what we have found out. We know of course that Beagle 3 is being talked about, so that will also be part of our inquiry and our questioning. Thank you very, very much for coming. We will try to keep our questions short, so that it gives you all a chance to give short answers. Do you agree with the former UK representative at ESA, Paul Murdin, when he said that the Government did all the right things for Beagle? Colin, would you like to take that?

  Professor Pillinger: I think the Government supported us very well after we managed to persuade them it was worth supporting us.

  Q2 Chairman: How did you persuade them, and why?

  Professor Pillinger: I was absolutely convinced that the science was world-class, and of course I had 20 years of background on which I had built it. It would have been very easy to accept a Government "sorry, there are not any funds available for this" in 1997, when I first went to them. Many other projects have been told that there are no funds in the budget, and that is true because these missions are put together years in advance—so they did need persuading.

  Q3 Chairman: The money dribbled out, did it not; it did not come in one big cheque or one big hand-out? Do you think that made a difference to the success of the project?

  Professor Pillinger: It would have been nice to have had the money all at the beginning.

  Q4 Chairman: Did you ask for it?

  Professor Pillinger: No, we never asked for all the money at once.

  Q5 Chairman: Why not? I would have.

  Professor Pillinger: Because we believed that if we asked for a large sum of money all in one tranche, we would have been told "no". We did try to convince them a little bit at a time; and of course there was a difficulty in that nobody ever believed that they carried the entire budget for a project like this. The industrial partners would never be funded by PPARC, in the same way as the scientists would never be funded by the DTI; so we tried to put this thing together in bits, ourselves at the OU, then to Astrium—MMS as it was.

  Q6 Chairman: So if I said you were cobbling it all together, would that be a fair description?

  Professor Pillinger: I would not use the word "cobbled", but—

  Q7 Chairman: What would you say?

  Professor Pillinger: We did try to put it together bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle, including the sponsorship.

  Q8 Chairman: Would any other panellist like to add to that in any way, as to how they saw the contribution by the Government to the project? How would you describe it in your lighter moments?

  Dr Healy: The approach to the funding overall was probably more innovative than the project team would have liked. We would have liked a much simpler structure, where there was one big cheque written at the start of the day, and we could have got on with the programme. That is the way that future programmes need to go down. There was an awful lot of goodwill to try to make the programme happen, despite the relative lack of budgets that were in place at the time.

  Q9 Chairman: Mike? I know that you are a former director but you were there at the time.

  Mr Rickett: I would say that it would have been probably quite difficult for us to have formulated on day one a clear picture of exactly the way the programme was going, and therefore the full extent of the funding that was ultimately required to do the job. There was an element of chicken-and-egg about it; we had to spend at least some time during the early parts of the programme working out within the partnership just how we would mount this mission and how we would go forward with it. In all of that time, I believe that we had government on side, and it was very positive and constructive in its support to us.

  Q10 Chairman: In your darkest moments, you did not worry that it might not all go right, in terms of the money coming forward, and as partners in it you had thought, "this is a risk"?

  Mr Rickett: Absolutely. It was always a big risk, but we were certainly convinced as a team that we had something special here, and that ultimately we would win through in terms of funding.

  Dr Sims: Beagle was a unique opportunity and that is why we agree with the comments of the two Mikes before me: we believed in the end goal, and it took some time to convince people that the funding should be there. The problem of course is that Mars Express happened on a very rapid timescale outside the normal timescales of projects of five to 10 years.

  Q11 Mr Key: Why were the lander and orbiter missions not managed as one project?

  Professor Pillinger: It is traditional that national contributions are made in terms of instruments. This is the way in which ESA has always operated, and ESA has learnt that this is a mistake. The team always believed that we were making a spacecraft and not an instrument. It was far more complicated than an instrument.

  Q12 Mr Key: What efforts did you make to try and persuade ESA to take on the management and oversight of the lander or of parts of the Beagle 2 project?

  Professor Pillinger: I do not think we ever tried to have them take on the entire management. I did offer them the chance to manage the entry descent and landing system because that was causing a considerable amount of concern within ESA.

  Q13 Mr Key: Do you think they have the management expertise to manage such a project?

  Professor Pillinger: They do have the management expertise. I do not see any difference between Astrium managing a lander if the Open University is the customer, or Astrium managing a lander if the European Space Agency is the customer.

  Q14 Mr Key: Do you think the chances of success would have been improved if ESA had been managing the project?

  Professor Pillinger: No, I do not. I think the chances of success would have been improved had we been treated at the same level as all the other instruments on Mars Express, but we always knew from day one that Beagle was considered as an add-on to the project. It was described as "the cherry on the cake" on a number of occasions. One has to remember that the instruments that were aboard Mars Express had already been lost once, so the European Space Agency were rather concerned that they not be lost again, and therefore the instruments on the orbiter were the priority, as opposed to the lander, which was considered as an add-on.

  Q15 Mr Key: Would anyone like to add to that?

  Mr Rickett: I guess the question infers that ESA were not involved with the programme to some extent. It certainly was the case that they were not remote from it. They had residents within our team, who worked very closely alongside us, and we worked very closely with John Credland, who was the then head of the science programmes. He was part of the steering group that met on a regular basis to oversee the way in which the programme was running. They were certainly involved with it and were not remote from it.

  Q16 Mr Key: Dr Sims, why were relations with Astrium Toulouse different?

  Dr Sims: This comes back to the fact that the Mars Express was originally conceived as an orbiter-only mission. It relates to some of the comments that have just been made in that ESA's priority was to recover the science and the instruments that had been lost on Mars 96. Therefore the lander was there as an option, and, I believe, in the initial invitation to tender to industry it was described as an option. Astrium Toulouse had the job of delivering the orbiter. I would have to consult my Astrium colleagues to know whether it was a fixed price contract or whatever, but their job was to deliver the orbiter to the specification. Consequently, they took the route of defining the interfaces on Beagle very early in the programme because they had to, in order to progress their orbiter. That gave us a distinct problem in that in the January 1999 kick-off meeting we were still in a phase of deciding what the envelope of Beagle 2 was. We already knew the mass had to be 60 kilos, and there was some uncertainty at that stage in our design; and we also knew the volume constraints because Beagle had to be designed so that it would not interfere with any of the Mars Express instruments if for any reason we did not eject. I think it was a management decision by Astrium Toulouse to force us to keep to our interfaces.

  Q17 Mr Key: Dr Sims, why was the interface between the two parts of Astrium so poor?

  Dr Sims: I really do not know, is the honest answer.

  Q18 Mr Key: Would you agree that they were poor?

  Dr Sims: I would not say they were very poor; I would say there was a difference in priority. UK Astrium was concerned with the lander and Astrium France was concerned with the orbiter.

  Q19 Paul Farrelly: Professor Pillinger, you referred to concerns when you spoke about the entry of landing systems. Can you say what those concerns were, and be precise as to who held those concerns?

  Professor Pillinger: The concerns over the entry descent and landing system emerged when ESA, together with NASA—it was a panel chaired by a man called John Casani—looked at the whole project in September 2000. Only the USA had managed to land successfully on Mars, and they had a similar system on Pathfinder. We were actually using the same company that had supplied to Pathfinder; nevertheless, the NASA reviewers, who had intimate inside knowledge—remember everything in this area is covered by ITAR, International Restrictions on Arms—had detailed information inside and they felt that we did not have an adequate testing programme. They voiced this concern at the review report, which said the project was eminently do-able, but that we should have help with the mass money and the entry descent and landing system testing.

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