He was an improbable hero: a man from Milton Keynes with mutton chops who wanted to send a spaceship resembling a small portable barbecue to Mars.
Professor Colin Pillinger’s great ambition was to try to find life on the Red Planet, “then you could make the quantum leap and realise that we are not the only living species in the universe”. His budget mission in 2003 to land a British probe on Mars and radio home any signs of life did not succeed – the Beagle 2 craft lost contact with Earth and was never found. But nor was it a total failure. He elevated the British space programme in the public mind, encouraged closer collaboration between UK scientists and industry, and inspired future generations.
The rambunctious professor’s sudden death at the age of 70, of a brain haemorrhage, robs science of a champion. More teenagers are choosing to take maths and physics A-levels, but the number is still low, as the education minister Liz Truss pointed out yesterday. As a kid I was curiously uninterested in the extra-terrestrial, rejecting space Lego and instead obsessing about wildlife, moving great herds of savannah creatures across the living room rug. But Pillinger had the gift, uncommon in science, of delivering entertaining, understandable soundbites to the media – and thus to the occasionally-ambivalent wider public – that conveyed his work’s import and passion.
Interviewed on Desert Island Discs, he described his approach to life as stubborn: “If I ever said as a child, ‘I can’t do this,’ my father would always say, ‘There’s no such thing as can’t’.”