Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 75-79)

5 JULY 2004


  Q75 Chairman: Thank you, Professor Southwood for coming along. I believe you were present in the first session and heard the nature of our questioning and the issues that arose. Can I start off by saying thank you very much for coming today. You heard my final remarks; we are all pro science, and we want to make sure that science advances, and in this area particularly. My first question would be why the Mars Express only started the project in 1997, leaving only six years to the launch date, because there was an opportunity, was there not, in 2003 to get something going to Mars? Why did it take so long to move it along?

  Professor Southwood: I think Europe sometimes finds it hard to get its act together. In fact, Western European nations had started trying to go to Mars with the Russians in the closing phase of the Soviet Union, with the two missions to Phobos, both of which failed—partial failures in one case. Then subsequently the Russians, I think wanting to open up to the West at that particular time in the late eighties, introduced a mission originally called Mars 92, which, due to the chaos in the Soviet Union, did not get launched until 1996, and so it changed its name to Mars 96 and was a complete loss. The spacecraft upper stage engine failed and the spacecraft failed to leave earth orbit. Much of the instrumentation on that spacecraft was from Western Europe, and indeed the existence of that programme had, I am sure, de-prioritised the need for ESA to have a Martian programme. Scientists are not terrifically sensitive about flag, and Russia had a long history of Martian exploration, or attempts at Martian exploration. So in 1996 there was a failure. It was a fairly catastrophic failure for the Russian space programme in fact. It was very clear that Russia was not going to suddenly re-institute a new programme overnight. So the nations that had up to that time been most interested in Martian exploration, which did not include the United Kingdom but Germany, France and Italy, were then interested in whether something could be saved from the wreckage, and could come Phoenix-like out of the ashes, and Mars Express was that answer. At the same time, we like to kill multiple birds with one stone, and we were under enormous pressure for the faster, cheaper, better approach to be shown to be possible in the European context. Mars Express was taken on as a new way of working. In Mars Express itself we did it faster than we had ever done things before, and moreover had industry and scientists working together in ways that we would never have trusted them to in the past. We empowered the scientists and industry to talk together, because it is a dangerous thing to do, because the scientists put up the demands on the industrial side and the price rises as well, and we have to pay the industries; so we were very nervous about this. In fact, we designed a system that worked, and Mars Express was delivered successfully. The idea of putting a lander on—there was no lander on Mars 1996; it was an orbiter whose primary purpose was to fly a high-resolution stereo camera, which we have now flown, and I hope those results you have seen. That was, so to speak, properly where we began.

  Q76 Chairman: Professor Pillinger described the lander as an add-on; they did not have the same status as some of the other instruments.

  Professor Southwood: It was late. It was only when we had scoped the mission that it was clear that there could be a lander because there was the capability to launch some extra kilogrammes. You start a mission by identifying roughly the resources and technical requirements, and then you refine them in a series of totally well-defined phases. They are called sometimes pre-phase A, phase A, phase B. They all have totally well-defined activities associated with them, and you home in on the resources on the management structure and so on. During the early phases, it was clear that we had mass margin and it could be used if somebody would give us a lander—and also if somebody would build us a lander, because the issue is not simply mass and not simply money, it is also management. We were trying to do a mission to a very tight budget—cheaper, faster, better—and you do not suddenly take on new management responsibilities without consideration—clearly, we do not stay in budget if we do that, or we do not come near staying in budget. Furthermore, there is a principle—I do not know that it has a name but I think it is a little like subsidiarity—that we like the sharp end of our missions to be run from inside our Member States, with the scientists themselves taking over as much responsibility as possible.

  Q77 Chairman: The question is about the lander and the status of the project.

  Professor Southwood: We received an offer of a lander from the United Kingdom, and we realised it was going to be done in an even more creative way. That is very clear in the documents.

  Q78 Chairman: We are going to have to have sharper answers if we are to get through all the questions. Was the lander treated in a different perspective and more seriously than in the other instances?

  Professor Southwood: Yes, because it started off being seen as an isolated element under British management. In fact, the management was, as you heard yourself, very unusual. By two years or so into the project, it was clear that was not working. We then had to impose a much more traditional approach to delivery. I am afraid that is just the way it was.

  Q79 Chairman: Did you think the lander would fail or crash?

  Professor Southwood: You have got to ask me at what point did I realise it was very unlikely to succeed. Continually during the programme, your view of how the programme is evolving changes. That is engineering for you. Say you miss more and more tests and more and more time for tests, so you adjust your risk—my private risk assessment. By the time it was launched, I thought the likelihood of failure was very high. I could not have told you a numerical value. I am not a betting man, so I would not have given you odds, but I would have said by the end of the programme I was fairly clear.

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