Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

5 JULY 2004


  Q40 Dr Turner: What effect do you think it might have had on the technical development work that went into the project, and therefore the potential for success of the project if the funding had not been on such a "catch as catch can" basis? If you had a clearer idea of where your funding was coming from at an earlier stage, would the development of the project have been very different?

  Professor Pillinger: I think we would have retired risks earlier if we had had early money. That is what space missions are all about. You can design on a piece of paper and work out what will work theoretically, but the way in which you can demonstrate it will work will be to do a test; and tests do not always have to work to be valuable. Tests that do not work can be just as valuable as those that do because they give you the limitations of your technology. It was particularly important in Beagle that we had a few tests that failed, because we were always capped in terms of mass, and if we found ourselves having to revise one part of the system without a mass margin somewhere else, we have to know where we could take mass away from, because we would be staying within the bounds of our tests.

  Q41 Dr Turner: How much did it affect the consortium when Martin Baker withdrew?

  Professor Pillinger: It certainly affected the consortium in the sense that Astrium had to take on an area in which they were lacking in experience, but nevertheless they were so committed to this project that they were prepared to learn this technology and learn it fast. It is a tribute to Astrium that they did take this on. They were so dedicated to us.

  Mr Rickett: I was actively involved with that decision, and I would say that it did not have a material impact on the programme; in fact if anything it was a positive impact at the end of the day. The so-called withdrawal was not a withdrawal at all; it was just that the two brothers, John and Jim, who run Martin Baker, made it very clear to me in a number of personal meetings that they saw space as a peripheral business. Their business is ejection seats, and they were not in the business to invest in this programme. They did not see a future in it. But, on the other hand, they did not wish ill of it and they were very clear that they would allow us to use their people and their expertise beyond their fundamental withdrawal in terms of their personal support. We actually used the Martin Baker expertise. We put a manager in and used exactly the same building; and we also used the expertise of their suppliers because a lot of the IPR and entry and descent landing system was really in their suppliers, as opposed to Martin Baker himself.

  Q42 Dr Turner: This is a fixed price contract. Did that not expose you to a lot of risks? What were the economic costs of the work that you did?

  Mr Rickett: I do not think I can comment on the specific amounts we are talking about, but certainly we did take on risk. As with all programmes where you take on fixed price, you look at the risks and list and monitor them and put in place mitigating actions to reduce the impacts of those risks, should they materialise.

  Dr Healy: It is true to say in this contract though that when we took on the firm fixed price contract there were constraints on how we would manage that risk, in terms of the mass and volume constraints that we were given. That did mean that we probably took on more risks commercially than in the cold light of day we might have done. In the end, we finished up over budget—it cost us more to do than we envisaged at that time. From a purely commercial point of view, this probably was not a great contract for us.

  Q43 Chairman: How much?

  Dr Healy: We overspent by about £1.5 million, compared to the fixed price contract we had; so that was no profit; that was just pure overspend.

  Q44 Paul Farrelly: I just wanted to go back to the entry descent and lander systems because we have heard the concerns that are being expressed through the NASA review. We have just heard that you have got involved with a company that then made it clear that "it is not actually part of our business". NASA and other agencies must have people they deal with all the time. I am somewhat confused as to why you got yourself into this situation.

  Dr Healy: The simple fact is that we were using sub-contractors on NASA programmes, so we novated the contracts, the ones that Martin Baker had; and we took those over. So they are with two suppliers in the US that supply into NASA programmes. In fact we were using the NASA expertise that had been developed for landing on Mars to reduce that risk.

  Professor Pillinger: Perhaps I can clarify something here. Martin Baker were the holders of the contract from ESA to build the entry systems for the Huyens probe, which is on its way to Saturn. We will not know whether that works until just after Christmas. We brought Martin Baker in after they volunteered to join the Beagle project because they thought that they were going to expand into the space business. It transpires that half-way through the project they had a change of heart. As Mike Rickett mentioned, there were two twins that ran this company, but they had very different views on space, and one wants to and the other one does not.

  Q45 Paul Farrelly: So you did take on a company for which space was a curiosity value.

  Professor Pillinger: No, we took on a company that was tying to break into this business. They did a very high-profile job with the European Space Agency, giving them credibility; so they were absolutely right for us, and they had all the sub-contractors in the US that we wanted to use.

  Dr Healy: When we took on the Martin Baker contract and we looked back at our systems design with the information that we then had directly from the suppliers, there were fundamental flaws in that design which we had to resolve. That was part of the risk that we did not really completely expect when we took the firm fixed price contract on, which led to the re-design of the parachute that Colin mentioned.

  Q46 Bob Spink: It is our job, as a committee, as you understand, to ask tough and provocative questions, but I, certainly, and many of the members of this Committee, recognise your enthusiasm, creativity and resourcefulness in pursuing this very exciting project. You would have to have no heart and no curiosity not to want such projects to go ahead and succeed. That is what we are really about. I tell you that so I can get your goodwill right at the start, because I need it because I have got two or three minutes and I want to tackle some of the engineering and science issues. If we can get short, snappy answers, I have a whole list of things I want to try and get through. What further tests should have been performed on the lander before it was deployed? What additional tests should have been made?

  Dr Healy: There were no additional tests that we thought necessary. I think if you ask any engineer whether they would like to do more testing, the answer is always "yes".

  Q47 Bob Spink: What were the main constraints—money, time, facilities or engineering and science expertise?

  Professor Pillinger: I think that the main constraint was that we did not have the priority that we would have liked in this mission.

  Q48 Bob Spink: Was it a mistake not to programme at the start of the project the full costs and time required for all the various testing that needed to be done?

  Dr Sims: When we started the project, I should say we did it on a formal work breakdown structure, I am trying to get round the perception of it being amateurish; it was always done on a full work breakdown structure. It is fair to say that we all had great difficulty estimating the initial costs. As time went on, we hit development problems and it was only natural that those costs would rise. In hindsight, we were under-estimating the amount of testing and the amount of development we needed to do. At the time we started the project back in 1997, we thought a lot of this technology would be off the shelf from American missions, and in reality it was not. It all had to be designed for Beagle 2 specifically, and the constraints then, which were mass and volume.

  Q49 Bob Spink: Did you use CPA techniques, modelling, at the beginning—critical path analysis and—

  Dr Sims: Oh, yes. There was always a formal schedule, which was revised throughout the programme.

  Q50 Bob Spink: Was the lack of high altitude balloon test a serious mistake?

  Professor Pillinger: No. NASA did not do high altitude balloon tests with MER-A or with Pathfinder as far as I know.

  Q51 Bob Spink: Do you think that the EDL systems were robust enough?

  Dr Healy: We would have loved to have done end-to-end testing, but it is a bit difficult to simulate the Martian environment, so you are always going to make compromises. But at the end of the day the Commission spent three months going through in detail, and as far as I am aware they could not find any design flaw that we had. So even though a number of decisions were made under quite a lot of time pressure, when we have looked back at that, we still think the decisions were the right ones.

  Professor Pillinger: No-one could find something that could not or should not have worked.

  Q52 Bob Spink: What additional facilities would you have liked there to have been on Beagle 2?

  Dr Healy: The trouble is, you need mass, then you need volume, and you need things for communication telemetry whilst going through the lander sequence. That would have been very helpful to have, but we would have needed 5 kilogrammes more mass and a completely differently planned mission, because you need to communicate to something that was not there.

  Q53 Bob Spink: What is your hunch on what went wrong? What do you think happened in a nutshell? It is guesswork, but—

  Professor Pillinger: I prefer to believe that the atmosphere was thinner than we anticipated and it was outside the models that we used.

  Q54 Bob Spink: So it went faster and hit the ground harder.

  Professor Pillinger: It went faster than it should have done. That is the only thing for which we have any evidence.

  Q55 Bob Spink: Would a communication system, back to Mars Express—

  Professor Pillinger: It would have told us whether that was true.

  Q56 Bob Spink: Do you think that the single biggest mistake was not to have that communication system in, with the mass on one side?

  Professor Pillinger: No, because what was the point of spending 5 kilogrammes for something that could not communicate?

  Dr Sims: The problem was there was no asset to receive that signal either.

  Professor Pillinger: That would have been 5 kilogrammes totally wasted.

  Dr Healy: You would have had to have changed the complete Mars Express mission in order to communicate with Mars Express, because Mars Express was the wrong side of the planet when Beagle was landing.

  Professor Pillinger: Mars Express could not turn to look at us anyway.

  Q57 Bob Spink: What part did ESA play in the lack of a communication system?

  Professor Pillinger: The decision regarding the Mars Express entry was taken in 1998 so it was well known long before we ever got to Mars that Mars Express could not listen to us for ten days.

  Bob Spink: Thank you. I am finished now, Chairman. Good luck with the next project.

  Q58 Chairman: Was the 60-kilogramme limit a real problem to make it successful?

  Dr Healy: Yes.

  Q59 Chairman: That was a terrible decision. You were handicapped by that.

  Professor Pillinger: It was not just the 60-kilogramme—

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 2 November 2004