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 nervebut
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
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 itOED), 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
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 moneywrong,
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 notthat
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 programmemoney
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
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
schedulefive years to deliver from the time the mission
was approvedand 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 gothe 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
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 technologythe
reason Beagle 2 got the money it didwill 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 Agencythe 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
And to really make a difference, why not fund
a pioneering programme involving smaller, faster, cheaper, better
missionswe 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 uniqueare 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 redundancytwo
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 missiontwo
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
upthe greater the obstacle, the greater the glory in overcoming
it! (David Hume).