Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 46

Submission from Professor Colin Pillinger


1.  Risk vs inspiration

  The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee inquiring into the fate of Beagle 2, thanked me, when summing up, for inspiring the Nation, even if it cost £45 million. I counted that as a victory since during proceedings he had rebuked me with "you should have been 95% certain it was going to work, if you were spending public money." My answer was "It would have been done already if it was that easy; and if it was that easy it would not have been exploration and we would not have inspired anyone."

  When Beagle 2 attempted its landing at Christmas 2003, 66% of all missions to Mars had ended in tears. Many more missions did not even get off the drawing board before those championing them gave up.

  In recent months, the Government has suggested that civil servants at the Home Office should take more risks. The DTI, OST, BNSC and PPARC did take risks with Beagle 2, the question is, should they again?

2.  NASA's attitude to failure

  Before the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) landed a few days into 2004, NASA's success rate was not even 50%: only three spacecraft headed for Mars had achieved their goal out of the last eight attempts. To succeed with the roving vehicles Spirit and Opportunity, NASA learned some hard lessons from previous failures, as indeed NASA always does. And that is the point about failure: it is the essential ingredient of learning. NASA always gets back on the metaphorical horse before it loses its nerve—but it does so whilst trying to work out why it fell off in the first place. The MER rovers have worked flawlessly on Mars for nearly three years during which time they have returned data of untold value.

3.  The Entrepreneurial attitude to failure

  Read any book about a successful entrepreneur and you will find quotes like "Success is 99% failure", attributed to Soichiro Honda. Bill Gates, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, Richard Branson and co probably thought themselves lucky with a 10% success rate for their business ideas.

4.  History's attitude to failure

  Scientists and engineers should be more comfortable with risk. Sir Humphrey Davy said: "The most important of my discoveries have been suggested by my failures." Edison is reputed to have discovered multiple ways how not to make the light bulb before he changed the way we see things in the dark. In science you often learn far more from things you did not anticipate during experiments. Experiments, like exploration (to travel through an unfamiliar area to learn about it—OED), are the font of new knowledge.

5.  An example of an unexpected result

  A good example of a totally unexpected result was the reason for flying Beagle 2. One day in 1984, a student in my lab, heated the meteorite Nakhla to see if it contained carbon dioxide gas trapped from the martian atmosphere. Carbon dioxide was evolved, but at all the wrong temperatures. We had discovered this martian sample contained carbonate minerals. Petrologists had been looking at martian meteorites for 150 years and because carbonates were in low abundance, no one had recognised them. This mineral is evidence of water trickling through the rock. Petrologists thought heating was a stupid experiment to use to look for carbonates! Nevertheless, our recognition of carbonates kicked off a whole new area of martian research. On Earth, sedimentary rocks containing carbonate carry the evidence of life processes that have been operational for four billion years. The discovery of carbonates in martian meteorites led to the finding of co-occurring organic matter (the relict of living organisms?) and in turn to the discovery of what might be martian fossils.

  The possibility of life on Mars rekindled interest in the red planet after a long hiatus because the Viking missions of 1976 had declared Mars the equivalent of desolate, depressing, sterile and repulsive, words used to describe Terra del Fuego before Darwin went there and started thinking about evolution.

  When President Clinton, on the White House lawn in 1996, 20 years after Viking, announced the discovery of putative martian fossils, CNN ran for 1 hour 40 minutes without a commercial break! The infant world wide web crashed.

6.  Totally unexpected spin-off from Beagle 2

  Without the motivation of trying to confirm the UK's martian meteorite results, in order to say we had found evidence of past life on Mars, Beagle 2 would never have existed. But neither would the Wellcome Trust-funded mass spectrometer group at the Open University be working on miniature portable instruments for early stage medical diagnosis. The team are now involved in trying to develop a real-time breath test for tuberculosis; at present in Africa sufferers can be dead before the results from a microbiological assay come back. The question which must be asked is "what value do you put on one human life?" Beagle 2 cost the UK 20p/person/year, few begrudged their share. There is a potentially enormous serendipitous payback from the mission and Mars exploration for the subjects that interest Wellcome and other government departments. The ongoing activities concerning mass spectrometry in the wider sense is of interest to the Department of Trade and Industry (commercial exploitation), Department of Health (medical diagnostics), Home Office (drug testing, anti-terrorism), Environment (atmospheric monitoring, water quality), Defra (veterinary science), Overseas Development (Third World epidemiology) and last but not least DfES through the inspirational power of a high profile UK involvement in Mars exploration (see 11 below).

7.  A retrospective look at Beagle 2

  Having been through all the design figures and the tests it had done, the Beagle 2 team decided nothing could not have, or should not have, worked. We came up with a long list of lessons learned, things we could do better if we had another chance. NASA would have tried again. We could not get back on the horse: unfortunately for us someone decided to take it elsewhere.

  No other inquiry looked for the technical lessons to be learned in more detail than ourselves. The ESA inquiry did not even interview the Engineering Manager and yet their conclusion was that management was to blame. There was a general consensus from all the inquiries that we did not have enough money—wrong, we did not have what we needed soon enough to mitigate risks. The worst failing of all in any high risk activity is indecision.

8.  What did happen to Beagle 2?

  Some time soon, cameras aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to discern whether our best guess of where Beagle 2 lies is correct. It is vital to show whether or not the remains of the spacecraft are in a tiny crater at the centre of the target landing region, a conclusion reached after NASA provided many high resolution photographs of the area. NASA is still looking for spacecraft that went missing in 1997. They see finding any remains as important in understanding how far a mission succeeded or how badly it failed. Incidentally, ESA have provided no pictures of the Beagle 2 landing area.

  Confirmation of Beagle 2's final resting place would give answers to questions like: "was Beagle 2 going too fast because of the unexpected thinness of the atmosphere?" Thanks to NASA it is known that the atmospheric conditions were unfavourable. The MERs succeeded because they were able to adjust. Or "did a freak accident, a sidewise impact with the crater wall (an hypothesis), put paid to the mission?" Finding Beagle 2 would give us an idea of what worked and what did not—that saves time and money for the future.

9.  The future European programme

  Irrespective of whether Beagle 2 is found, the UK should try again. One of the successes of Beagle 2 was that the Government provided some new money to the British space programme—money to join ESA's Aurora programme. The 2004 CSR, (with some prompting from S & T Committee?) felt there should be funds available if a timely opportunity arose to be a part of something like Beagle 2.

  The problem with Aurora is that there is only one approved mission, ExoMars. Since it was adopted in 2003, ExoMars has already slipped from a 2009 launch to a 2011 launch, and thence to a 2013 launch. The later start date means a two year, instead of a seven months, flight time, so it will be 2015 before ExoMars lands. It seems rather an affront that an organisation that criticised Beagle 2 for poor management (Beagle 2 adhered to the Mars Express schedule—five years to deliver from the time the mission was approved—and delivered on time) can accept a slip of four to six years less three years into the programme.

10.  The implications of the ExoMars slip

  The slip to 2013 means the science payload as originally conceived for ExoMars cannot be achieved, some things may have to go—the UK has experiments that could be vulnerable.

  In its present form there is no provision for a data relay with ExoMars, the mission is dependent on NASA for returning the science. If ESA has to build its own orbiter, then it can take the originally planned science and more, but that will cost more money (an extra 200 million Euros on top of the original 700 million), perhaps even more time and a bigger Ariane V rocket. And what happens if this single shot ExoMars mission fails?

  NASA will have sent spacecraft to Mars in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2016 by then to address questions about life. In respect of technological development any lead that Britain built up as a result of Beagle 2 will have evaporated. You cannot discover life twice and it is next to impossible to motivate people to be also-rans.

11.  The drift away from science by young people

  Even more frustrating, by 2015 an opportunity to inspire the younger generation into science and technology—the reason Beagle 2 got the money it did—will have been forfeited. We have been told there were plenty of children, who got up before 6.00 am Christmas morning 2003, to ask not "Where are my presents?" but "What happened to Beagle 2?". Everyone, five years old and above, will have passed through school and left without the chance of being exposed to the imagination-capturing subject of Britain in the forefront of looking for life on Mars. There will, of course, be other space missions, but nothing has quite the same appeal as the red planet.

12.  Should we invest?

  What Britain needs is a Mars mission to bridge the gap between Beagle 2 and ExoMars, which is a generation away. I do not accept we cannot afford it. We are the sixth richest nation in the world but only the seventeenth in terms of space expenditure. If we want children doing science subjects we cannot afford not to give them goals to aspire to. We invest annually something like £180 million of Government money, yielding a contribution to our GDP of several billions. Surely, that is a good return. Why not then put in £500 million, affording more jobs and greater profits and all the spin-off that goes with it. Never forget the cost of the hardware that goes into space is negligible, all the expertise stays on the ground; it is never at risk, unless it goes abroad because there are no incentives in the UK. But to recover the value of what has been achieved, even from a mission condemned as a failure, you have to use it somewhere else, not jettison it.

13.  Should Britain have a space agency?

  At Farnborough this year, Lord Sainsbury signed a concordat with the Algerian Space Agency—the Algerian Space Agency! Why doesn't Britain have a Space Agency? And give it a budget big enough to buy into programmes like ESA's Aurora. If there are slips in the programme through no fault of the UK (we were one of the first to sign up to Aurora), then it should not be the only string to our bow. In my experience we need representation that can take a firm hand with an organisation as amorphous as ESA. It is difficult enough going to Mars without not being in charge of your own destiny. We must have our own space programme and the option of collaborating with more than one agency: for example NASA, Russia, the emerging space-faring nations of the Far East.

  And to really make a difference, why not fund a pioneering programme involving smaller, faster, cheaper, better missions—we might lose a couple early on but success would soon bring huge rewards and make us the envy of the world because we would be exploring and discovering before them.

14.  Where does Beagle 2's gas analysis package go from here?

  Having grown very frustrated with the lack of progress in Europe towards trying to answer a question that has fascinated scientists, science fiction writers and the general public since humans first turned their eyes towards the heavens, namely : "Is life on Earth unique—are we alone in the Universe?", I have turned my attention elsewhere. Together with a group of US scientists and engineers, with Canadian support, I have submitted a proposal to NASA for a mission to be launched to Mars in 2011 as part of their Scout programme. This mission incorporates all the lessons learned from Beagle 2 and many more from the MERs project.

  Our project, called MARGE (Mars Autonomous Rovers for Geoscience Exploration), that is proposed, has double redundancy—two attempts to land, two rovers on each attempt, a duplication of the instrument package, sent to two different sites. The choice of sites is dictated by evidence of where water might have been on Mars, indeed where it might have been in the recent past so the chances of finding past or present life should be maximised. With two rovers working in tandem if one is in difficulties the other can help it out. In the event of a complete breakdown, the working rover can bring a share of the samples. If both break down they can still analyse the atmosphere for traces of gases that would be an indication of life being present on Mars now. The contribution my group would make is key to the mission—two mass spectrometers and sample processing packages, one to each landing site to carry out life detection experiments. It is disappointing that it is not a British-led mission but we have 50% of the payload after cameras, it is the best I can do.

  With respect to the inspirational value of MARGE, with two rovers at each site, with cameras replicated on all vehicles, we will be able to provide the pictures (not just static but moving) that everyone wants to see: one rover watching the other in action and the experience of driving on Mars from the driving seat. There will be websites to announce the results as soon as possible to the public and students and a programme of "tell the rovers where to go."

  The US team have an impeccable track record having supplied cameras to all NASA's recent Mars missions; one of the industrial partners has participated in 34 successful space missions from 35 launches. In the aftermath of Beagle 2, Lord Sainsbury said "We shouldn't only do low risk projects." The new proposal is about as low risk as we can make it. Naturally there is no funding available for this mission yet, PPARC will have to ask for it but, if it is accepted by NASA, I hope money will be forthcoming and that the Public Accounts Committee will approve of the efforts made to heed their advice.

  15.  A final message to risk takers: "You have not really failed until you give up". I have not given up—the greater the obstacle, the greater the glory in overcoming it! (David Hume).

October 2006

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 17 July 2007