Confirmation that the Beagle 2 space probe has been found intact on the surface of Mars should warm the heart of anybody who cares about scientific progress.
The project was masterminded by the charismatic Dr Colin Pillinger, who died last year, and was portrayed from the outset as having something of the Heath Robinson about it. The spacecraft’s presumed destruction in a high-powered impact with the Red Planet on Christmas Day 2003 became symbolic of a certain kind of British eccentricity, which hopes for the best but cannot be trusted to deliver.
In reality, the Beagle 2 mission was always a thoroughly serious undertaking, and the science behind it was a great deal more sophisticated than was occasionally declared. To discover that it came so close to achieving its goals is a testament to the endeavour of Pillinger and his team.
More than that, the news reminds us of the need to accept that the advancement of science does not always follow a smooth path and that failures are frequently an integral feature of ultimate success. For every absurd theory, there develops a counter-theory. From every botched experiment, there comes a new question. Even the most terrible disasters – from Challenger to Bluebird, from the Sinclair C5 to Chernobyl – teach us something that will improve the chances of getting it right next time.
The Beagle 2’s launch more than a decade ago stirred a remarkable degree of interest. Its rediscovery should inspire afresh, and encourage a new generation to think beyond the limits of their own experience. Indeed, since scientific disciplines are surely vital to Britain’s future economic security, it is crucial that the exhilarating work of people such as Colin Pillinger be held up as an example of how science progresses, not how it stalls. After all, it is one of life’s earliest lessons: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.