Stephen Pollard: A nation stuck in the mindset of the Beagle

Nasa as an entity got the job done, not a gutsy scientist who tried to prove everyone wrong
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The Independent Online

The word is "embarrassing". The BBC's lunchtime news yesterday reported the triumphant transmission of pictures from Nasa's space probe on Mars. As the reporter put it: "The Spirit rover survived the perilous plunge through the Martian atmosphere after a seven-month voyage from Earth." A marvellous success, indeed. The report then went on to quote Nasa's science manager, John Callas: "The images are outstanding. The quality (is) the best that have been taken. This is incredible. This could not be better."

And then, snuck in at the end of the report, came this single sentence: "The European Space Agency is still searching for the missing British-built Beagle 2."

How typical. In the run-up to Beagle 2's Christmas Day landing, we became a nation obsessed, the news dominated by previews of how Colin Pillinger and his plucky British team were going to sock it to the rest of the world. And then oops. Nada. Much ado about nothing. Ah well, we tried. Jolly good show. It's the taking part that counts.

Someone else was also taking part: Nasa. I won't labour the point, but it boils down to this. We tried and failed. They tried and succeeded. And ne'er the twain shall meet.

I understand neither space nor science, so the value of yesterday's pictures - indeed, of the entire space project - is not for me to judge. But I do understand the British and American psyches, and there are few more stark illustrations of the difference between the two than events on Mars over the past fortnight.

Take Prof Pillinger himself. He has been profiled everywhere, his name now synonymous in Britain with space exploration. Part of the media's fixation with his project was because it was so clearly his project, which he alone got off the ground. Slightly eccentric, looking like a caricature scientist, battling against the odds to achieve his dream, he could hardly have been more perfectly constructed to appeal to the British mindset.

Here's a question. Can you name his opposite number at Nasa - the person responsible for the success of Spirit? Of course you can't, because such a person does not exist. It's Nasa as an entity which got the job done, not a gutsy scientist who tried to prove everyone wrong.

A caller to a phone-in which I heard yesterday took umbrage at the underhand tactics employed by Nasa: "It's so typically bloody American. If they want to do something, they spend billions, buying up all the talent and swaggering around as if they've got all the answers."

As opposed, that is, to the Brits who, when we want to do something, spend as little as we can get away with, come over all coy about it, and then when it fails, deny it really matters to us. Finally, when someone else succeeds, we behave like a child who has had his toy taken away.

Take TV. The Christmas edition of the BBC's Dead Ringers included a marvellous joke. Up flashed the ITV logo, followed by this: "Coming up next on ITV1: an opportunity to watch all your Christmas DVD presents." Why is it that almost the only programmes worth watching (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Frasier, The West Wing, to name just a few) are American?

There are many factors, but one is the "Nasa effect" - the sheer weight of resources that they can put into a project. What few original and worthwhile British dramas or comedies there are (rather than hack-work programmes such as EastEnders or Casualty) almost always have a writer - just one writer, that is - who sits in a room alone. After a few episodes, the ideas run out and the programme either ends, or carries on and is awful.

It's the classic British model, which repeats itself across all sorts of areas and industries. American shows, by contrast, employ vast teams of first-rate writers who pool their talents and, more often than not, come up with a product far superior to anything achieved by the single British writer.

The same holds for lawyers, too - another field in which Americans dominate. Go to a top City firm with a problem and you will be put in the hands of one lawyer (and his or her subordinates). Go to a top US firm and you will be put in the hands of the firm itself, and the pool of its partners' knowledge.

This difference extends to a more general problem with British culture, as opposed to American. They worship success and so - cause and effect - are successful. We sneer at their in-your-face attitude to success and so - again, cause and effect - end up with little choice but to laud failure.

Thus our attitude to Nasa's triumph yesterday - as if it somehow doesn't merit that much praise because it was bought through vast amounts of time and money. While Beagle cost just £45m, Spirit got through £220m. How tacky and American!

We dismiss actors, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, who move to Hollywood for "getting above themselves", and we criticise actors such as Anthony Hopkins who appear in box office hits for "selling out". And - my favourite, this - we loathe companies such as Microsoft, which have the nerve to make computing simple, accessible and popular not just because they are - crime enough - American but also because they are too successful. Too successful!

www.stephenpollard.net

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