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Beagle 2: A Fortunate Failure
Honolulu - Jan 13, 2004
Everyone interested in Mars exploration should now take a few minutes off from looking at those fine photos of Gusev Lava Flow sent back by the Spirit rover. It is time to fall on our knees, face toward Memphis and give thanks to Elvis that the British Mars lander Beagle 2 has failed. I can't think of any possible event more potentially disastrous for the future of unmanned planetary exploration than the success of this particular mission.
Why? Isn't every failed mission a blow to the Holy Cause of Space Travel? That's what the average Space Cadet thinks as a result of years of brainwashing. But intelligent Space Cadets realized a long time ago that this mission shouldn't have gotten a hearing at the Ministry of Silly Walks, much less the Ministry of Science and Innovation. I and many other students of space madness have been following Beagle 2 obsessively for years, watching it gradually drift over that indistinct line that separates mere eccentricity from certifiable lunacy.
Dr. Colin Pillinger, the chief scientist and head promoter of Beagle 2, has a double inheritance of eccentricity. First he is from Britain, the world capital of eccentric behavior. Where else can one find a society promoting the proposition that the historic city of Jerusalem was really Edinburgh? Where else could people publish a scholarly journal devoted to identifying Jack the Ripper? Where else could a rustic town like Stratford-upon-Avon develop the delusion that their native son Shakespeare wrote the greatest body of literature in the English language? Even California can't compete with this kind of dottiness.
Second, most of Pillinger's scientific work is in the area of meteorite research -- a subghetto of science that is filled with eccentric scientists. In my former life as an asteroid astronomer, I dutifully attended the annual meetings of The Meteoritical Society, and quickly learned one of the holy traditions of that ancient and esoteric order: Every member is allowed a rigid quota of one wacky theory that nobody else believes in.
Year after year, distinguished scientists with impeccable records of measuring obscure isotope ratios would step up to the podium and give 10-minute slide talks about how their particular pet isotope PROVES BEYOND A SHADOW OF DOUBT that (e.g.) tektites are actually volcanic glass bombs ejected from Io!!! Other isotope scientists in the audience would roll their eyes uncontrollably, and then in the question time methodically demolish this insane model with an assumed air of seriousness, bringing up dozens of other isotopic ratios that totally disproved it. The speaker would smilingly admit that he knew nothing about those other isotopes, having spent the last 30 years in his lab measuring his own pet isotope with no spare time to read the Journal of Obscure Isotopes.
(This tradition got slightly confused one year when a distinguished scientist misused the question time after my 10-minute slide talk to give a short unscheduled speech promoting his wacky theory, instead of attacking my wacky theory as tradition demanded. Unsure of the correct protocol for this situation, I gave him a short all-purpose answer that we Americans have evolved for such situations: "It's a free country.")
So there would be something very wrong with the universe if Colin Pillinger were completely normal. But what is acceptable eccentricity in a mere college professor is dangerous lunacy in a project manager who wasted many millions of pounds and euros of public tax money on a project that had little hope of success.
It became clear to me that Pillinger had crossed over the line when he started a fund-raising tour of Britain's regional radio stations, during which he would appear on talk shows and beg the general public to mail him envelopes full of money which he would use to build his spaceship.
This method has been tried many times in the past by Space Cadets in the USA, and even with our much larger population of idle rich people, no one has ever managed to raise enough money to build a real science instrument, much less an entire spacecraft. Even The Planetary Society, with all the clout of Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray behind it, has been unable to fund anything more than pseudo-experiments like the "Mars microphone".
So it was inevitable that Pillinger's attempt to raise funds for Beagle 2 from the great British public would be a dismal failure. Then he tried to raise money from British industry, and met defeat again. The only major corporate backer he was able to line up was -- the very same company that would get most of the money to build the spacecraft! Eventually, he did develop a marketing relationship with a popular band called "Blur"-- quite appropriate given the mission's obscure history.
After a while, Pillinger's appeals for money started to develop a bizarre ultra-nationalistic tone. He declared that not funding Beagle 2 would result in the total collapse of the British aerospace industry, an unacceptable loss of national prestige, and the total domination of the Solar System by those bumptious ex-colonials in North America. I began to suspect that Pillinger was a secret member of the National Front.
Just when it seemed that he was about to start channeling the spirit of King George III and be taken off in a straightjacket for an interview with the Lunacy Commission, Pillinger somehow managed to strike oil. The British Government agreed to fund Beagle 2!
There is no rational explanation for this decision. In the past, the UK has seemed quite content to have most of its space science activity subsumed into the multi-national European Space Agency. Why should HM Government suddenly feel the need to have an all-British space probe raising the Union Jack triumphantly over the red sands of Mars? It's the kind of project that would make perfect sense a hundred years ago, when Britain staged grand spectacles like Imperial Durbars and Fleet Reviews to conceal its declining economic and military strength. It makes no sense at all today, when the UK has found a comfortable niche as the leading second-rank power.
Of course the amount of money allocated by HM Treasury for Beagle 2 proved to be totally inadequate, due to Pillinger's wildly optimistic cost estimates. But by this time, the All-Anglo Mars Lander had become a major element of the ESA's Mars Express mission. Without Beagle 2, the ESA probe would be just another boring orbiter mission. So to keep Mars Express in the publicity spotlight, the ESA allocated a bundle of Euros to help Pillinger finish building his "British" lander.
There is a lot of uncertainty and secrecy about the real costs of Beagle 2, published estimates running from $50M up to ~$85M. The issue of who paid how much is even more obscure. But it is no secret that Mars scientists on the Continent were outraged at Pillinger's "theft" of money from their mission. One story current at the time was that ESA had to cancel construction of its second deep-space tracking station to cover Pillinger's cost overrun, which cut the expected data return from Mars Express in half.
But the total costs of Beagle 2 seem to add up to less than half of the ~$170M NASA spent on the unsuccessful Mars Polar Lander and perhaps one-fourth the ~$350M budget for the successful Mars Pathfinder. Informed observers seem to agree that these missions gave us a calibration on the true budget needed to design and test a new Mars lander. So how could anyone in their right mind think that Beagle 2 had much chance of working on its miserably small budget?
Actually, those people on the Beagle 2 project who were in their right minds have consistently been quoted as giving the mission only a ~%50 chance of success. But this fact seemed to pass right over the heads of the British press (both right-wing and left-wing), which went into an irrational tizzy about the plucky little lander and its slightly dotty creator. Normally sensible publications like the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Telegraph printed articles that would disgrace a tabloid. The flip side of Britain's tradition of eccentricity is a tradition of tolerating and encouraging eccentrics, sometimes merely for their entertainment value, sometimes in dead earnest.
Now, of course, the reaction has set in, as the Beagle 2 team forlornly listens for the signal that they all know now will never come. If this had been another NASA fiasco, Pillinger would be subjected to the USA's version of judicial torture -- testimony before a committee of Congress. But the British don't have this useful blood ritual. The best we can hope for is a few snide comments from backbenchers in the Commons at Prime Minister's Question Time. And as for those wasted Euros -- when have the Eurocrats in Brussels even been made to answer for any wasted money by the powerless EuroParliament or anyone else?
But the real disaster would have been if Beagle 2 had actually, by some stroke of dumb luck, landed on Mars and sent back some data. Let's imagine ourselves in PillingerWorld, the alternate timeline where Beagle 2 is chugging away on Mars.
In PillingerWorld, the British press is running wild stories praising Colin Pillinger as a second Darwin. Space Cadets around the world are citing Beagle 2 as the model for a new generation of faster/better/cheaper planetary missions. Anybody who dares to object is dismissed as a hireling of Lockheed-Martin. And NASA is giving millions of dollars and tons of blank vu-graph sheets to a new crop of study projects that will design a "new generation" of ultra-cheap planetary probes. And young people around the world are listening to Blur and growing huge muttonchop sideburns. Yes, PillingerWorld is a nightmare. Thank Elvis that we avoided it! Now we can all return to the boring task of designing real missions with real budgets and real prospects of success.
Jeffrey F. Bell is Adjunct Professor of Planetology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. All opinions expressed in this article are his own and not those of the University.
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Communication Strategy of the Beagle 2 "Think Tank"
London - Dec 30, 2003
As part of the Media update on 27th December, Professor Alan Wells (Lander Operations Control Centre, University of Leicester) outlined details of the work being undertaken by the Beagle 2 team to assess the current situation. A specialist team, titled the "Analysis and Recovery Think Tank", has been established to concentrate on understanding the reasons for Beagle 2's apparent failure to make contact with Earth, and to address the steps that may be taken to resolve these problems.