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Colin Pillinger poses with Beagle 2, the Mars mission he is most closely associated with. (credit: ESA)

Red Planet dreams

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Colin Pillinger died on May 7, two days short of what would have been his 71st birthday. Pillinger was a noted planetary scientist and the author of hundreds of scientific papers. Yet if you look at his Wikipedia entry it mentions very little of that. For good or bad, Pillinger will mostly be remembered as the principal investigator for the Beagle 2 spacecraft, which was his idea, although the name was suggested by his wife.

Beagle 2 was certainly cheaper than NASA’s Mars landers, but they had the added benefit that they actually worked.

Beagle 2 was a small Mars lander and was launched as a hitchhiker on the Mars Express spacecraft in June 2003. It separated from Mars Express on December 19 and was supposed to land six days later, but was never heard from again. Pillinger started Beagle 2 as a private project, and in an effort to raise money he frequently bragged that, unlike expensive NASA Mars spacecraft, his little dog was going to be cheap. Occasionally his bragging went so far as to badmouth NASA’s efforts as bloated and gold-plated, trying to stir up some nationalist fervor by bashing the Yanks and their Mars efforts. In summer 2003, around the time of Beagle 2’s launch, a former senior NASA Mars official let me in on a secret: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had provided non-monetary assistance with Beagle 2, but only after somebody had quietly informed Pillinger that if he wanted help from them, he had to tone down the anti-NASA rhetoric. He needed more honey and less vinegar.

Pillinger kept a lot of secrets about Beagle 2. Not only NASA’s assistance, but also the fact that apparently some of the spacecraft contractors never got paid. The British government had also stepped in with funding for the “private spacecraft,” ultimately contributing around a third of the cost. Also hidden was the spacecraft’s final cost: £66 million, or approximately $120 million in then-year dollars, way more than the original $50 million goal. It was certainly cheaper than NASA’s Mars landers, but they had the added benefit that they actually worked.

After Beagle 2 failed, Pillinger claimed that it was due to an unforeseeable Martian atmospheric effect. He kept repeating that line even after an official investigation had been completed in May 2004 but was not released. In what looked like an effort to cover its mistakes, the British National Space Centre, which had provided £22 million in funding for Beagle 2, kept the report secret saying that they would use it “to learn lessons for the future.” This flew in the face of one of the tenets of investigation reports, which is that they should be public so that they can be taught in classrooms and widely disseminated so that future engineers and project managers can learn from past mistakes. (See: “A different kind of openness,” The Space Review, February 28, 2005, and: “A very sick dog indeed: the Beagle 2 failure investigation,” The Space Review, March 28, 2005.)

The investigation report was finally released in January 2005 after the magazine New Scientist had filed a freedom of information request for it, and BNSC suddenly acted like it had wanted a public release all along. Their reasons for suppressing it quickly became evident, because the report was damning, blaming multiple management failures, many of which could be laid at Pillinger’s feet. There were many things that could have gone wrong on the Beagle 2 mission, but page 5 of the report ruled one of them out: “The Commission concludes that the deviation in the atmospheric entry conditions is not a probable failure mode for Beagle 2.”

Pillinger had been talking about a Beagle 3 in the meantime, possibly launched on a NASA spacecraft. Those plans never progressed. Pillinger was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, and the disease made it increasingly difficult for him to walk. Some people indicated that Pillinger was abrasive, and he was certainly driven and probably a bit eccentric, traits that are often required to be highly successful in starting private space missions. But he also had a sense of humor (or “humour” as the Brits would say) and in 2007 he published the book Space is a Funny Place, filled with historical cartoons about spaceflight. Rather surprisingly, although I had never met him, and wrote two rather negative articles about Pillinger and the Beagle 2 investigation in early 2005, Pillinger sent me a copy of his book out of the blue, probably laughing as he put it in the mail.

Perhaps his legacy is that somewhere he lit a fire in an eccentric young person’s mind, making them believe that someday they too could start their own mission to Mars.

Beagle 2 was a small spacecraft, and possibly could have served as a prototype for a multiple lander mission on Mars that deployed a network of sensors, although a seismic sensor network might have been difficult with such a small lander. However, after it failed, a Mars scientist told me that he was actually glad it had not succeeded. In the late 1990s NASA had learned a painful lesson about cutting budgets for Mars spacecraft too much, resulting in the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, both of which could have benefitted from more funding for testing and safety and mission assurance. Had Beagle 2 worked, this scientist explained, it would have led to pressure for cheaper NASA Mars missions, and we might not have gotten Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix, and eventually Curiosity and MAVEN.

Indeed, we are hearing echoes of Beagle 2 today with India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Officials with India’s space program have claimed that MOM costs only $76 million, a fraction of NASA’s MAVEN mission launched around the same time. But although there is no doubt that India can build spacecraft cheaper than NASA (if only because they do not pay their engineers as much), MOM’s costs have clearly been understated, excluding many budget items commonly included in NASA accounting. More importantly, the two missions are not comparable, and carry different instruments. Hopefully India’s spacecraft will successfully enter orbit around Mars this September, but Mars is a hard target and nobody would be very surprised if the mission failed.

Pillinger was a unique character. Perhaps his legacy is that somewhere he lit a fire in an eccentric young person’s mind, making them believe that someday they too could start their own mission to Mars.