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Beagle 2
Beagle 2 can teach ESA many lessons about technological choice and management failure. (credit: Beagle 2)

A very sick dog indeed: the Beagle 2 failure investigation

The successful arrival of the Huygens probe at Titan was an admirable achievement for the European Space Agency. Huygens was a complex and expensive spacecraft that accomplished more than anyone expected from it. It is a powerful symbol of the ambitious planetary exploration program that ESA has adopted in recent years. In the past several years ESA has also placed Mars Express in orbit around Mars and sent Rosetta on to a lengthy mission to rendezvous with a comet. Soon ESA will launch Venus Express to orbit Earth’s overheated twin.

The Europeans also have their eyes set on Mars as well. However, they face a dilemma: they want to develop a rover, but realize that the best they could do given their existing experience base is emulate the American Spirit and Opportunity rovers at a time when the Americans have plans for swarming the planet with a diverse fleet of spacecraft. There is no way they can spend the same amount of money as the Americans.

No matter what they ultimately decide, one hopes that they fight the natural human tendency to hide their failures and instead take a long hard look at the investigation report on the recent Beagle 2 fiasco. Beagle 2 can teach them many lessons about technological choice and management failure.

No matter what they ultimately decide, one hopes that they fight the natural human tendency to hide their failures and instead take a long hard look at the investigation report on the recent Beagle 2 fiasco.

Beagle 2, as everyone who follows space exploration knows by now, was a very inexpensive lander built by the British and launched toward Mars, where it disappeared without a trace. As previously discussed in The Space Review (“A different kind of openness”, February 28, 2005), the failure investigation report on the mission was kept secret for nine months, until a lawsuit by a British magazine forced its release. Without the intervention of the British media and the court system, this report would have stayed locked away, instead of serving a valuable purpose: teaching current and future mission managers and engineers how not to run a space program.

At only forty pages long, the Beagle 2 failure report is a quick read, but it contains such a long list of problems that it is hard to place them in some kind of hierarchy. Unlike the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, this is not a cultural and psychological examination of the agencies that built and managed the spacecraft. But it is easy to spot the pathologies present in the organizations that were involved in Beagle 2—not only the eccentric, often annoying Colin Pillinger at the Open University, but the British National Space Centre and ESA, which brought their own cultures to the project as well.

Beagle 2 started out in 1997 as a British program led by Pillinger. Pillinger appealed to British nationalism and a certain amount of anti-Americanism to get his project funded. He claimed that he was going to demonstrate that British ingenuity and frugality could produce a Mars lander for only a fraction of the cost of a Yankee spacecraft.

However, in order to get to Mars, Beagle 2 needed a ride aboard ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, meaning that ESA had to approve it. According to the Commission of Inquiry into the Beagle 2 failure, this was where ESA made a major mistake. ESA’s Science Program Committee had recommended that Beagle 2 had to meet a number of conditions before approval, including that it achieve full funding by October 1998. Nevertheless, one year later, with only half the necessary funding raised, ESA approved the project. This was the first time that ESA ignored recommendations concerning Beagle 2. It was by no means the last.

The Casani team had outlined exactly what was wrong with Beagle 2, but nobody in ESA or the Beagle 2 consortium started a systematic program to address each of the problems.

ESA’s Science Program Committee approved Beagle 2 in November 1999 as a £24 million (US$39 million at the time) program, not including instrument costs. At the time, the program managers—a consortium consisting of the Open University, the University of Leicester, Martin Baker Aircraft Company, and Matra Marconi Space (later to become EADS Astrium)—had secured £6 million from the consortium partners and £5 million from the UK government. The consortium expected to raise the remaining money from private sponsors. That never happened.

By mid-2000, ESA’s science leadership was becoming increasingly nervous about Beagle 2. Having no proven track record with Mars spacecraft themselves, let alone Mars landers, ESA asked the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to evaluate Beagle 2. The independent review was conducted by JPL’s John Casani and took place in September 2000. The Casani report was critical of Beagle 2 on a number of points. They found that the management was “complex and fragile,” there were insufficient mass and schedule margins, and no robustness in the entry, descent and landing systems.

The investigation commission determined that “insufficient actions were taken to correct the shortcomings identified in the Casani report.” More specifically, the Casani team had outlined exactly what was wrong with Beagle 2, but nobody in ESA or the Beagle 2 consortium started a systematic program to address each of the problems.

By this time the expected cost for Beagle 2 had grown by fifty percent, to £35.4 million. By July 2001, the cost had risen to £42.5 million (roughly $68 million, although Pillinger continued to publicly claim that the cost was lower). But the investigation report is unclear on exactly what organization covered the cost increases. It appears that at some point ESA decided to pay for the majority of Beagle 2, despite the fact that it had originally been approved as an “experiment,” meaning that the cost was supposed to be paid by the British government and the consortium, not the European Space Agency.

In June 2001, Martin Baker Aircraft announced that it was withdrawing from the project, which the Commission called “a serious setback that undermined the technical management and oversight of this mission critical system.” In early 2002, failures of the descent system airbags forced a redesign and development of a new main parachute. Surprisingly, the Beagle 2 team recovered from this setback and delivered the spacecraft to the Mars Express prime contractor in February 2003 so it could be prepared for launch. Of course, whether the Beagle 2 team successfully recovered from the setback is unknown, as failure of the landing system is one possible cause of the mission’s loss.

Beagle 2 may have highlighted a bigger programmatic flaw in the way that ESA conducts its space science missions. According to the Commission, “because of the high profile of Beagle 2 and the public’s interest in it, ESA and the UK Authorities [i.e. the British National Space Centre] should have managed the expectations of the mission outcome in a balanced and objective way. It should have been made clear to all stakeholders, including the public, that the risk of failure was significantly higher than had been anticipated.”

In some ways this finding contradicts others in the report, or at least does not mesh with them very well. For it is fairly clear that the Commission determined that Beagle 2 never should have flown at all. It had too many problems. ESA knew about the problems and decided to fly it anyway. Failing to adequately warn the public of Beagle 2’s riskiness was probably the least of ESA’s sins.

As ESA’s planetary exploration missions get more ambitious, and its spacecraft get more complex, the agency should consider asserting greater oversight over the individual instruments.

However, the Commission’s comment sheds light on one of the flaws in the way that ESA operates. ESA asserts less rigorous oversight over instruments than it does the main spacecraft. Space science missions are collectively funded by ESA through contributions of all of its partners. However, instruments on these missions are usually funded by individual governments or organizations. ESA essentially views the loss of an instrument as an embarrassment to the organization, government, or researcher that built it. They lose the data and prestige. Beagle 2, however, was a spacecraft that the organization treated like an instrument. But because of its nature, its complexity, and the high profile it assumed particularly because of Pillinger’s lobbying, nobody was ever going to view Beagle 2 as merely one instrument among many on Mars Express. Its failure detracted from the success of Mars Express.

As ESA’s planetary exploration missions get more ambitious, and its spacecraft get more complex, the agency should consider asserting greater oversight over the individual instruments. NASA’s attitude is that a failed instrument diminishes the overall mission, not simply the science. Beagle 2 inadvertently demonstrated that the spacecraft and the science are not independent. There are many lessons to be learned from Beagle 2, but this is a good place to start: public relations is no substitute for sound engineering.


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