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Beagle 2
By originally failing to make the report on the loss of Beagle 2 (above) publicly available, the usefulness of the report was greatly diminished. (credit: Beagle 2)

A different kind of openness

A spokesperson for the late British Rail once earned eternal fame in that country by blaming train delays on the fact that “the wrong kind of snow” had fallen on the tracks. David Southwood, the head of science for the European Space Agency, earned his own bit of infamy in May 2004 when he explained the reason why ESA would not be releasing its report on the failure of the Beagle 2 Mars lander: “We live in an open society too, but it’s open in a different way,” Southwood said. That kind of non-openness is inexplicable and self-destructive for any space program. Fortunately, the European media helped put an end to it.

In December 2003 the British-built Beagle 2 separated from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft… and disappeared. Nobody knows exactly what happened to the plucky little dog. In fact, nobody knows even vaguely what happened to it, since Beagle 2 had no telemetry during the reentry phase. NASA learned back in 1999 with the crash of Mars Polar Lander that such telemetry was useful for explaining what went wrong in the event that something did not go right, and now all NASA Mars spacecraft require this capability. ESA did not learn from NASA, so Beagle 2 did not have a telemetry system during reentry, and thus nobody knows why it went silent.

According to a BNSC statement, “the report was always seen by BNSC and ESA as an internal inquiry. Its purpose was to learn lessons for the future.”

ESA then called an investigation, headed by the UK Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury, and ESA’s Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain. The investigation was completed by May 2004 and then, rather amazingly, ESA and the British National Space Centre (which helped fund Beagle 2) refused to release it. According to a BNSC statement, “the report was always seen by BNSC and ESA as an internal inquiry. Its purpose was to learn lessons for the future.”

Instead of releasing the report, the space agency released a lengthy set of “recommendations.” When a reporter pointed out that this was notably not the way that NASA worked—its embarrassing investigations are widely distributed and readily available on the Internet—Southwood said that ESA believed in a different kind of openness compared to the Americans.

For over seven months the report remained “internal” while the scientist who built Beagle 2, the eccentric Colin Pillinger, blamed the loss on his spacecraft on unexpected changes in the Martian atmosphere. He also lobbied for funding for a Beagle 3, possibly to be attached to a future American spacecraft. Pillinger is, by all accounts, as abrasive as sandpaper. Beagle 2 was designed to be extremely cheap. Apparently, the original goal was to build a Mars lander for $50 million, although it appears as if the actual cost was considerably more than that (the secrecy surrounding the project still makes it difficult to determine exactly how much it did cost). While he was building Beagle 2 Pillinger constantly bragged about its superiority to more expensive American spacecraft. The idea that he might be able to hitch a ride on a future NASA Mars lander is ludicrous. However, he continued to make his claims and to blame the failure on Mars.

In January, the Beagle 2 investigation report was finally released. Unfortunately, the obfuscation did not stop then. At the time of the release, BNSC stated that “in view of the Committee’s strongly held view that the report should be published in full, we have discussed the issue again with ESA and have persuaded them that the report should be published.”

What BNSC left out of its statement was that it was actually the British magazine New Scientist that had forced their hand. New Scientist filed a request under the United Kingdom’s new Freedom of Information Act to force the document’s release. The magazine’s editors thought it was not a good idea to leave the dead dog alone.

It is easy to see why the report was kept so secret. The 40-page report is a profound indictment of virtually everyone involved with Beagle 2, from Pillinger and his team to the British National Space Centre to the European Space Agency. It provides a gripping narrative and many lessons of how not to run a space project.

Beagle 2 hitched a ride onboard ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft and ESA treated it like an instrument, not a separate spacecraft. The report makes clear that this was a major mistake and spreads blame to ESA as well.

There are many examples of things that went wrong with Beagle 2, from insufficient funding to the withdrawal of key contractors to warning klaxons about technical shortcuts and management turmoil that were ignored. For instance, in 2000 ESA officials, concerned with Beagle 2, asked the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the organization with the most experience with Mars spacecraft—to conduct an independent review of the program. JPL reported back that technically the spacecraft could work, although it was very risky and had absolutely no redundancy. However, JPL also determined that Beagle 2’s management was a major mess and required fixing. ESA took the JPL report and placed it on a shelf to gather dust. At no point did the agency initiate a program to implement each of the recommendations that JPL produced, making one wonder why ESA had ever bothered to request a review in the first place.

Part of this is due to the way that ESA conducts its space missions. ESA pays for and builds the spacecraft, but the instruments are provided and paid for by the member governments. As a result, ESA considers them to be primarily the responsibility of the contributors and assumes that if the instruments fail, blame will fall on the scientists and nation involved. In contrast, NASA considers the spacecraft instruments nearly as vital as the overall spacecraft, and conducts much more vigorous oversight. Beagle 2 hitched a ride onboard ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft and ESA treated it like an instrument, not a separate spacecraft. The report makes clear that this was a major mistake and spreads blame to ESA as well.

One of the lesser-known secrets of Beagle 2 was that it was in many ways an ESA spacecraft. Originally Beagle 2 was supposed to be entirely privately funded—one reason Pillinger had engaged in bashing the Yanks was to drum up donations to fund the lander. But when Pillinger could not raise enough money, he turned to BNSC. And when BNSC ran short of cash, it, in turn, requested money from ESA. However, neither BNSC nor ESA conducted the kind of rigorous oversight that they would have for a normal project. Another dirty little secret is that some of the companies involved in building Beagle 2 may not have been paid, and don’t want anybody to know that they got stiffed.

Despite the fact that the report is so damning, it is even more alarming that it was successfully suppressed for eight months. The report is filled with lessons for other spacecraft managers, particularly those building ESA’s current spacecraft. It should be on the syllabus for any engineer or manager taking an entry-level course on spacecraft design, program management, or spacecraft safety. If NASA’s new safety center is on the ball (and we can only hope that it is), the report should be required reading on this side of the Atlantic as well.

When a report is kept internal, its usefulness drops dramatically. Even people working inside the organization who are allowed to see it will have trouble gaining access to it. Finding a copy will be difficult if not impossible. Just as bad, contractors, potential contractors, and junior employees will be denied access to the report and therefore will never learn its lessons. There is really little point to conducting an inquiry if virtually nobody will benefit. A good example of this can be found on page 5 of the report: “The Commission concludes that the deviation in the atmospheric entry conditions is not a probable failure mode for Beagle 2.” Yet Pillinger had been blaming the atmosphere for Beagle 2’s demise during the eight months that the report was kept secret.

When a report is kept internal, its usefulness drops dramatically. Even people working inside the organization who are allowed to see it will have trouble gaining access to it.

Of course, just because a report is public does not mean that people will learn its lessons. During the Columbia accident investigation, board members and investigators were surprised to learn that Diane Vaughan, who had written an insightful book about the 1986 Challenger disaster, had never once been contacted by NASA. Investigators who worked for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear propulsion office were quite familiar with Vaughan’s book because they used portions of it in their own training for submarine safety even though it dealt with a spacecraft disaster. They could find no evidence that NASA managers even studied her book despite its widespread publicity and praise. Disturbed by this, the board had Vaughan testify publicly and asked her about NASA’s apparent ignorance of her work. Soon afterwards, Vaughan received a phone call from a senior NASA official who essentially lectured her for half an hour. When she later mentioned this in an interview, the space agency realized that it had a problem. To NASA’s credit, Vaughan was later invited to NASA headquarters and warmly received by the apparently chastened official.

Something similar now needs to happen with ESA and BNSC. The Europeans are currently discussing launching a Mars rover equivalent to NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity by the beginning of the next decade, although the project is currently woefully short of funding. Hopefully, with the release of the investigation report, the European press and European governments will keep the pressure on. If the report’s lessons go unlearned, ESA could find it repeating the same mistakes all over again, only at a higher cost.


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