Why Richard Branson won't be flying to the Red Planet

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The Independent Online

* Sir Richard Branson might be making waves with his plan to pioneer "space tourism," but he's not exactly flavour of the month with our most famous space explorer of recent times, Professor Colin Pillinger.

* Sir Richard Branson might be making waves with his plan to pioneer "space tourism," but he's not exactly flavour of the month with our most famous space explorer of recent times, Professor Colin Pillinger.

Professor Pillinger - the Bristolian scientist behind the failed Beagle 2 mission to Mars - announced last week that he is searching for funding to send another craft to the Red Planet.

Pundits have suggested that Sir Richard would be eager to support the flagship project. However, Pandora gathers that Branson, above left, has already been asked to support the Beagle team, but gave them a polite (but firm) thumbs down.

"We have had discussions with Sir Richard through an intermediary, but the answer came back that it's a no," Pillinger told me at the recent Cartoon Art Trust awards. "Despite what you might think, he only puts his name to things when other people put up the money. He's not actually someone who hands out money for this sort of thing."

Yesterday Branson's spokesman offered a conflicting reason for his reluctance to help. "We said no because we didn't think it was going to work," he said. "Our scientists told us it wasn't likely to be a success. It was an interesting project, but for the amount we were being asked to put in it just wasn't worth it."

* MADONNA HAS become quite the friend of Israel, following her trip there on a Kaballah "pilgrimage" in September.

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has persuaded her to appear in a video telling us that their country's safe to visit. It will be shown at next week's at the World Travel Market in London.

"I was a bit hesitant to come here after seeing so many news reports about terrorist attacks, and reading countless travel safety reports about how dangerous it is to be here if you are an American," she says.

"I realise now that it is no more dangerous to be here than it is to be in New York, and I feel very safe and welcome."

Not everyone's convinced, though. "I imagine Madonna will be telling us Israel is safe - as long as you have your own posse of armed bodyguards," says the Jewish Chronicle , wryly.

* TAMARA BECKWITH has made a touching concession to the happiness of her boyfriend, the Italian construction heir Giorgio Veroni.

The evergreen socialite, pictured, has gone back to school - or at least, the Italian Cultural Institute on Belgrave Square - to enable her to converse with the potential future parents-in-law, in their mother tongue.

"I'm spending the next month on an intensive Italian course," she tells me. "It's four days a week, for four hours a day. We've been going out for a year and a half now, and there's only so long I can sit there smiling sweetly when his family are chatting to each other."

* BORIS JOHNSON isn't about to bury his head in the sand following the unwelcome renewal of newspaper interest in his private life. Tomorrow, the Spectator editor - whose relationship with Petronella Wyatt is the subject of much tittle-tattle - is due to speak at his city columnist Christopher Fildes' book launch. On Thursday he'll host the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards.

Both parties will be full of hungry hacks, but Bozza's prepared to tough it out. "His office said today that he is definitely, definitely coming, one hundred per cent, and he hadn't considered for a minute pulling out," says Fildes' publisher.

Meanwhile, a Speccie scribe tells me. "Boris will be at our awards all right: do you really think he'd miss out on all that publicity?"

* Here's an insight into the New Labour spin machine, courtesy of Tom Watson MP, a member of Alan Milburn's election strategy team. Laying out his "top 10 tips" for colleagues wishing to get into local newspapers, Watson advises them to "think in pictures".

"Mrs Watson could get a job on Blue Peter, having this year magicked together gold stars (to celebrate the local hospital's performance ratings), giant fireworks (Fireworks Act) and giant stamps (to save a local post office)," he writes.

Currently a junior and - to the mirth of colleagues - unpaid Government whip, Watson adds: "Don't be too greedy. Share a good story with a colleague. At the very least, get them in the picture and the story too."