Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100-119)

5 JULY 2004


  Q100 Chairman: You could have fooled me. You have criticised on a broad front. We are trying to nail you.

  Professor Southwood: I think, if you want me to say, and I think this will happen in the future, and it has been put together by BNSC, they will never start anything and they will not put anything to ESA without having a clearly defined agreement at the starting point as to where the money is coming from, who is responsible and a managerial structure in place. That is what we are doing already with new programmes; for instance, the mid-infrared instrument for the James Webb telescope.

  Q101 Mr McWalter: Nothing risky would ever happen?

  Professor Southwood: Come on, everything is risky in space. It is a highly risky business. That is why you do everything you can to mitigate risk. One clear way to mitigate risk that we all are in charge of is to get the money in place and get the management in place. The risks come because you cannot go up there and fix it because you are doing things 100 million kilometres from home. That is where the risks lie.

  Q102 Bob Spink: Could I just re-direct very briefly? You said that you took a view early on that the project would fail. Did that view influence you in not allowing sufficient mass?

  Professor Southwood: Not at all. It seemed to me on the mass that we went from 60 kilograms at the beginning to I think finally 72 kilograms, so we went up by 20% anyhow. How is that done? If you had declared that 12 kilograms that eventually were going to appear at the beginning, they would have gone immediately. I am afraid you manage things by keeping margin and you give out the margin as you see that the pressure you are exerting is failing to deliver. Management is done by creative tension.

  Q103 Bob Spink: Professor, you have heard the previous witnesses say that they asked if they could increase mass from 60 to 68 kilograms and they did not get a response from you, from the ESA. Can you explain why that was the case, if it was indeed the case?

  Professor Southwood: I do not know what the date was. Do you have the date? Early on you fix the boundary. They know you have got margin, but equally well we did not know the margin we had until we were sure of the performance of the launcher and we were sure of the delivery mass on all the other instruments. Remember, we were launching much more than 60 kilograms. This was a small element. Our ability to be generous also is a function of time.

  Q104 Bob Spink: Do you accept that this lack of mass increased the risk?

  Professor Southwood: Of course.

  Q105 Bob Spink: Were there any instruments at all in Mars Express that could have been left out to create more mass for the lander that could have been a trade-off, looking back and in fairness?

  Professor Southwood: Look at the results we have got already. Would you not have wanted to see those three-dimensional pictures which are high resolution and utterly unique; the discovery of methane—unique; the discovery of the ice and separation of the water ice from dry ice—unique? Come on, I think we have done pretty well.

  Q106 Bob Spink: I am just asking the question.

  Professor Southwood: The short answer is "no".

  Q107 Bob Spink: I think you have already answered this. Do you think that we should go ahead and follow through with more projects?

  Professor Southwood: I would love you to do that. I would simply say: take the advice of the inquiry board and look at those recommendations before you let the money go. Make sure that those are obeyed.

  Q108 Dr Turner: Professor Southwood, you keep telling us that at quite an early stage you got a very strong view that Beagle was likely to fail. Could you tell us why you thought it had a very high risk of failing and, secondly, did you have a strategy in your mind that could have been applied to reduce its risk?

  Professor Southwood: Yes to both. The short answer is certainly that I had a strategy, which was to sharpen up the management. I came in and found it, frankly, a mess. There was no structure of sub-contracts; there was no clear hierarchy. I like the management hierarchy to match the way the money flows. I could not find it. I am afraid, although I am an academic, I am a manager also, and I have always enjoyed managing, and it was not sound.

  Q109 Dr Turner: The failure was obviously a technical one. Could you relate the perceived flaws in cash flows and the structure that you detected to actual technical difficulties which would have led to its failure?

  Professor Southwood: Yes. This becomes a little bit of a personal perspective, but clearly if we had had in place a clear managerial arrangement for the procurement of the entry to the descent landing system, I think we could have shortened the schedule of delivery on that substantially; we could have done far more testing; and we would have found some of the shortcomings that emerged much earlier in the game. Equally well, we could even have modified the Mars Express programme to meet Beagle's requirements much more easily. One of our problems was that Beagle was so behind. We had frozen Mars Express because you have to bolt it together; you have to close things down; you have to take decisions. Some of the lack of flexibility we had was simply that Beagle was so late. If we had had a clearer situation in 2000, and certainly in 2001—and I came in in September—when we finally put together the agreement that I think worked remarkably well, all things considered, I was told there were six days margin in the schedule. The agreement was not signed for another month or so, at which time I said, "Do we cancel it?" Of course the answer was "no".

  Q110 Paul Farrelly: That was September 2001?

  Professor Southwood: Yes.

  Q111 Paul Farrelly: I was just looking at the time lag for government contributions to Beagle 2 going from your May date when you said you came in very quickly. You said this was likely to fail in your own mind. In July 2001, the British Government provided £8.3 million, which was the biggest single chunk of funding.

  Professor Southwood: But then we had to tie that to the management structure, which was the heads of agreement. We did not want that money given away without getting a price of it, which was management structure.

  Q112 Paul Farrelly: I wanted to ask you a question. On that time lag, after you came in and made your assessment, the Government provided £12 million, half the amount of funding. Do you think to have done that, the Government was actually appraised properly of the risks of failure, and do you think that that money, in your view and given your assessment at the time, could possibly have been used better within the European Space Agency for other space projects?

  Professor Southwood: It was such a golden opportunity. It is very easy to be wise after the event. I do not think I ever hid from anyone that this was a high-risk strategy but, on the other hand, once in a while you have to take a high risk. I firmly was going to get a price for that money, which was much clearer management. I think Astrium stepped in and started sorting the problems out, but they had their own problems. The company was in trouble.

  Q113 Paul Farrelly: Do you think the Beagle team was giving an accurate assessment to the British Government funders of the risks involved and the problems it was facing, particularly with the landing difficulties?

  Professor Southwood: It depends who you mean by the British Government. I think that there was an enormous pressure not to let the British people know how high risk it was and that was for a very simple reason and it was very straightforward. They were still looking for commercial sponsorship. There still was the hope of getting sponsorship and getting money back. I know I was put under pressure, and I find it quite reasonable in the circumstances, not to say publicly, not to broadcast the fact, that I thought it was very high risk. I will tell you that privately I do not think anyone could have doubted my position. On the other hand, do not get me wrong. Once I had made the commitment in the autumn of 2001 that we were going to launch, the instructions I gave to my project manager who is sitting right behind me were: we do everything we can to deliver. But probably he did not tell the Beagle 2 team everything because project managers need to have margin to negotiate. That is just good management.

  Q114 Dr Iddon: Could I ask a final question on that? I am an observer on this scene. What I am listening to is a representative of the European Space Agency, critical of a part of a mission which obviously you are responsible for, the Orbiter, and yet I am hearing a gap in management style here. Is there not something wrong with the European Space Agency if it cannot be completely open and critical of a mission which is being attached from another European country, if you follow the drift of what I am trying to say?

  Professor Southwood: I know what you mean. It depends and in a way, I think Europe is at that particular stage where there is a gradual ceding of power from national capabilities to European capabilities. Personally, I am very happy to keep the strengths in the national side as best I can.

  Q115 Mr McWalter: So ESA has major managerial weaknesses itself?

  Professor Southwood: No, that is not what I am saying.

  Q116 Dr Iddon: What are you saying? We need to get to the bottom of this.

  Professor Southwood: What I am saying is that there are perfectly good reasons for doing things the way we do; that is, leaving certain capabilities if they exist best on the national level with national entities.

  Dr Iddon: Even though they may fail?

  Q117 Paul Farrelly: As long as it does not blow up your craft?

  Professor Southwood: You are British. If you want me to take responsibility, by all means I will. Equally well, we were working in a system where the British had taken responsibility. Good for them. I was happy to call Beagle 2 British. You would have to call Beagle 2 European if it were done by me. You cannot have both.

  Q118 Bob Spink: Do you think that ESA could have given more managerial and technical support to the Beagle 2 project?

  Professor Southwood: That is a question I ask myself. I cannot see what it could have been. I put somebody permanently in Astrium, and he worked up a very good relationship with the team. I have given clear instructions to my project manager, sitting behind me here. On the other hand, you have to give people responsibility, and there was a responsibility vested in Astrium UK.

  Q119 Bob Spink: Are you pleased in a way, since it failed, that Astrium is a British failure and not a European Space Agency failure?

  Professor Southwood: Come on, I am British. I was very, very upset. I really wanted it to work. I can tell that you my life would have been more difficult had it worked.

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