Give the green light for another mission to Mars

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The Independent Online

The inquiry by the European Space Agency and the British National Space Centre into why the Beagle 2 mission to Mars went wrong has finished its work, but will not make its report public - only its recommendations

Finding out what went wrong is a crucial part of the learning process. It means you avoid making the same mistakes next time. The inquiry by the European Space Agency and the British National Space Centre into why the Beagle 2 mission to Mars went wrong has finished its work, but will not make its report public - only its recommendations. This is a pity, because it has led to dark whispers that the report essentially finds Professor Colin Pillinger, the physicist with the eccentric sideburns who became a fixture on our TV screens before Christmas, largely to blame for the mission's failure. We lost contact with Beagle 2 at some point as it descended through the Martian atmosphere on Christmas Day.

From what little we know about the report's content, it talks of "failures of process". It is people who make processes and considering Professor Pillinger was, very obviously, the guiding force behind the whole project, this does seem to be an implicit criticism of his leadership. If this is the conclusion, it seems rather cowardly of the European Space Agency not to make this known. It also seems an overly harsh judgement on Professor Pillinger.

Professor Pillinger had to demonstrate shrewd entrepreneurial skill to get the mission going - hitching a lift on the Mars Express orbiter - and was working to a very tight schedule. Under these conditions it is remarkable that Professor Pillinger got as far as he did. He had the vision which, arguably, the European Space Agency lacked. And it's worth remembering that had Beagle 2 been successful, which it very nearly was, we would be feting Professor Pillinger as a hero, rather than discussing the nuances of critical reports.

In the absence of any glaring error of judgement or incompetence, it is unwise to indulge in looking for a scapegoat - especially in an area as fraught and technically demanding as space travel. Another important part of the learning process is that set backs cannot be used as an excuse for giving up. Professor Pillinger should be given the green light to begin work on the next mission to Mars as soon as possible.

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