Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)

5 JULY 2004


  Q20 Dr Iddon: Professor Pillinger, did you plan a management structure from the start of the project, or did it evolve as you went along; and in either case did you base the management of the project on any known examples that had gone before?

  Professor Pillinger: It is very difficult to define a management structure when you do not have any money to be a customer to place an order with someone. We set off in Beagle 2 under a very clear gentleman's agreement. The obvious way forward was to get the project selected by ESA so that we could then move on to get the funding from government. The management in the initial stages, therefore, was clearly me as the PI, with Mark Sims acting as project manager to get a proposal through the system. However, we were supported by Astrium and indeed everybody else in the consortium right from the first meeting that we held at the Royal Society in May 1997. Astrium had up until this time been MMS and still were MMS, and they were transferring from Bristol to Stevenage. Once the proposal was accepted, Mike Rickett gave us a very senior engineer to be the spacecraft engineer, and very shortly thereafterwards gave us a project manager. Of course, we now had what appeared to be two project managers, so it was designated that John Thatcher, who was the Astrium industrial project manager, would be called the programme manager, and Mark Sims would become the mission manager in charge of the science and the operations when we got to Mars. That was, as far as I was concerned, a very typical management structure for a project like this. The industrial role is to deliver the spacecraft, and thereafter the scientists who expected to get the data out of it would run the project.

  Q21 Dr Iddon: Is it right for me to assume, therefore, that the lack of knowledge about the total finance that might be available as the project progressed was a factor in determining the management model, and perhaps a factor in the failure, in that you did not know how much finance you were going to have or even need ultimately?

  Professor Pillinger: I think everybody knew where we were. We were all aware of the constraints under which we were operating. We had several goes at estimating the costs. It was quite clear that the costs at the beginning of 2000 were probably just under 30 million. Later on, when there was a restructuring of the programme because of the departure of Martin Baker, those costs were clearly going to escalate because we were behind on testing, behind on schedule, and Astrium was going to take on additional risks. Certainly, if they were going to take additional risks under the form of the fixed price contract, then it would be prudent to make sure that there was contingency funding. Finally, there was another change in the cost, when we found that we had to design a completely new parachute; and that was coped with by the Government giving a small increment in funding to Astrium for a specific parachute study, and by the OU and Astrium coming to an accommodation over the way in which funds would be reimbursed if we got anything back from sponsorship.

  Q22 Dr Iddon: In the end, who had overall control of the project? Where did the buck stop, or who did the buck stop with?

  Professor Pillinger: Ultimately, if anybody was going to say "this project stops", they would have had to persuade me that I was to stop trying to make the project happen. However, the man who was managing the project who controlled the budgets was John Thatcher of Astrium—although he did not control any budgets for the science instruments, which were all controlled by the individual suppliers of the instruments, which included the OU, Leicester and a number of other universities.

  Q23 Chairman: Was there ever a moment when you discussed that possibility, of abandoning the whole thing? Did you ever worry? Did you have a sleepness night?

  Professor Pillinger: Me?

  Q24 Chairman: Lots of sleepness nights, I guess.

  Professor Pillinger: No, I never had any sleepness nights. I always thought we had a very just cause and that the science that we were intending to do would carry us through; and I always thought that the technology—in fact, in a room very much like this it was admitted that the science and the technology were world-class.

  Q25 Dr Iddon: Were the working relationships between all the parties involved in this, which after all must have been a complex project, made clear at the outset, or were they clarified at the heads of agreement meeting and finalised in June 2001?

  Professor Pillinger: There was never a time when the people working on this project did not know what the management structure was. It was absolutely clear the rules under which we were working. The rules between Martin Baker and Astrium were absolutely well known. We had to formalise arrangements in order to qualify for funding, as and when these were stipulated; but when you have money you can sign contracts. If you do not have money, there is absolutely no point in signing any contract.

  Q26 Dr Iddon: So we are back to the finance again. This keeps bobbing up.

  Professor Pillinger: Ultimately, contracts can only be signed when somebody has a cheque to offer to somebody else.

  Q27 Dr Iddon: There had been a previous project of course, the Rosetta Mission, which—

  Professor Pillinger: Which I was involved in.

  Q28 Dr Iddon: Yes. That had failings in management and technical leadership, so I gather. Was anything learned from that project to apply to this project?

  Professor Pillinger: Can I comment on that? I was involved in Rosetta, and I will absolutely say to you that the management of the Rosetta lander was a shambles because it was a project that was very, very loose, and it constantly had changing oscillation between French and German PIs. Every time the six months moved on, so that it was somebody else's turn, everything got changed.

  Q29 Chairman: How much did that cost the nation, then, Colin?

  Professor Pillinger: It did not cost us anything. We had an instrument on board the lander which did not come into the management province. When I set up Beagle, I resolved that we would not have anything like the bickering that ever occurred in Rosetta. In fact, there was never an occasion in Beagle when there was any quarrel over who was managing what.

  Q30 Dr Iddon: The Casani review was rather critical of the management structure of Beagle 2. Did you see a copy of that, where the project management was described as "fragile"?

  Professor Pillinger: Yes, I have seen a copy of the Casani report. I also was there when John Casani gave a verbal report. It was about 2 am on a Saturday morning at the end of the project, and Casani's words were actually—I think I quoted in my written presentation—"your way of doing things is nuts but it seems to work".

  Q31 Dr Iddon: We have gone through Rosetta and we have gone through Beagle, and we hope there is a future project, obviously; that is what this Committee would like to think. Can you tell us after all those questions on management what you would do different in future to make a project more successful?

  Professor Pillinger: The two things that I would like to make the project more successful is a very early decision, with priority, if you are building a lander, to say this is a lander project. I would not turn down the opportunity to hitchhike again, but by the same token I would expect, if I was a hitchhiker, to have equal rights in terms of priority. I have already explained that we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. We knew Mars Express was going to give the orbiter priority, but if I was doing it in future that would be my first priority, to say this is a lander project. If you want to have a lander successful, then the sensible way to do it would to be sent two landers because you are never going to get a 100% risk-free project. Thereafter, put the money in place early; do not have people trying to be drip-fed with money.

  Q32 Dr Iddon: So we have two conclusions to my round of questions. First, the finance has got to be clear from the start—as you are saying loud and clear—and, secondly, do not piggyback on somebody else's project but do a lander project on your own.

  Professor Pillinger: The finance is secondary. We never had any difficulty working without any money because we were all so committed to the idea of going to Mars to look for life. I personally believe that that is still a very valid goal; in fact it is even more valid now than it was in 1997.

  Q33 Dr Iddon: The primary conclusion is, "do not piggyback". Is that what you are saying?

  Dr Healy: With regard to this hitchhiking business, the lander has to be an intimate part of the mission. The problem with Beagle is that it was an optional extra. It was a very nice optional extra to have, but you had a mission that was perfectly valid without it. Some of the earlier questions were about differences between Toulouse and the UK on how things were being managed, but you had a Mars Express programme that was relatively low risk, with instruments and a spacecraft that was a deviation to Rosetta; so it was very close to something that had already happened. It was under contracts from about 1999. We had a very clear situation with Mars Express. The only area that was not clear was whether Beagle was going to be there or not. On the other side, you had Beagle, which was relatively high risk, relatively high technology development, without a clear statement on funding. It was not until July 2001, when the funding was in place, that the management structure could then be formalised, rather than relying on a gentleman's agreement, and at that point it then ran pretty much as a normal project would have run. However, just getting that funding sorted out that late in the day caused some tension with Mars Express and created a position where we were always under pressure when it came to delivering Beagle.

  Q34 Dr Iddon: Are you saying the opposite to what Professor Pillinger is saying; that the financing was a primary factor and not a secondary factor as Professor Pillinger said?

  Dr Healy: I do not think there is a big difference between the two of us on this one. It has to be an intimate part of the mission. Colin might say it has to be the number one priority—I just think it has to be part of the mission right from the word "go", and you need the funding in place. You need those two things.

  Professor Pillinger: I do not think we disagree, but Mike came along very late in the project and has seen it as a very clear industrial contract. Mike Rickett was around at the beginning, when I was the Pied Piper and leading everybody the dance.

  Mr Rickett: If you are looking for lessons for the future, then I would have to say that you have to get the financing in place. As far as Beagle was concerned, I am not sure that that had so much of an impact. As Colin says, there was so much enthusiasm within the team to make it successful that we did not really need the binding that maybe future projects will need. When Casani talked about fragility, I think he was referring to the fact that there was not really a legal contract binding these guys together, and in the event, if things went wrong then partners might walk away.

  Q35 Dr Turner: It seems very strange to have a project which has lots of elements, but which only gets drawn together after seven years, but seems to have started out without all the costs worked out. It has all the appearance of being a bit amateurish. Would you agree?

  Professor Pillinger: No, this was never an amateur project, and we knew from the beginning that the costs were going to be something of the order of 25 million plus. The project was reasonably carefully costed within the bounds that we had. If the project actually did escalate in price, then it was inevitable it was going to escalate in price because we would find ourselves playing catch-up because we did not have all the money in place at the beginning. This project was never amateur. It might have been an image that was worth portraying because it was a media-friendly image of some boffins going to Mars, but—

  Q36 Chairman: Did Saatchi not pay you anything?

  Professor Pillinger: Saatchi never paid us anything. We paid Saatchi. The deal we had with Saatchi was that we paid them some money up front. If they had attracted sponsorship, that money would have been returned out of the first—

  Q37 Chairman: But that never happened.

  Professor Pillinger: Because it never happened. We never—

  Q38 Chairman: How much was it with Saatchi—can you tell us?

  Professor Pillinger: We were paying them on a retainer, which was a monthly sum of money, which was £8,000 a month.

  Q39 Mr McWalter: Why are you worried about saying it was amateur, because the original Beagle was amateur, and the costs were unknown, and what was going to be found was unknown? It was only as a result of the Beagle that Darwin himself became a professional and it was the making of him. I do not see why it is a bad thing to accept that. This mission is a bit of a make-or-break thing: if it made it, you would not be amateur, and if it did not, then you might be!

  Professor Pillinger: The connotation that it was amateur would not do the reputation of my industrial partners much good. When we began this, there was a perception that we were off on a PR stunt. In fact, PPARC at the beginning did not take things too seriously; but Paul Murdin said at one of these inquiries "we were surprised when we saw the science". There was no reason for them to ask for a science case because they had no money to give us; but when they saw the science case and realised just how strong the science case was, they began to get the message that the science case had been rather well conveyed to the industrial partners, because the industrial partners were prepared to back the science with their own resources. This is why I am keen to get over that this was done by people who were at the very top of their field in terms of the science and the engineering. I think Mike Rickett gave us the best people he could find for this project; he really scoured the country and found the best people.

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