I had a recent message from my favourite (I know lots of them) space scientist Prof Colin Pillinger. Colin was head of the Beagle 2 project to put a vehicle onto the surface of Mars to search for evidence of life. By an extraordinary feat of effort, drive and personal commitment Colin got the largely British-built Beagle probe built, launched and transported over 6 months through the solar system to the red planet in time for its Xmas day landing, and then the transmissions stopped.
If ever a mission can be said to be glorious but ultimately unsuccessful, this was it. Imagine if a British probe had delivered the evidence that life actually existed beyond our own planet. It would probably be the most profound scientific discovery of all time. Colin’s team and the Beagle 2 Mission came within a whisker of delivering the science but in the full glare of the world’s media, and with his life’s work on the line, Colin had to admit that the mission had failed at the final hurdle – confirmation of a successful landing.
The nice thing about Colin is that whilst he remains one of the world’s foremost planetary scientists, he’s a totally grounded guy who is as interested in music, football and beer down the pub as he is in moonrock. I met him several times and couldn’t help but admire how he retained a keen sense of humour even when the pressures of the mission were at their most extreme. When Beagle 2 was launched aboard the ESA’s Mars Express rocket from Baikonur we hosted the launch event from BT Centre, relaying the TV feed pictures from Russia to an audience of the UK’s leading scientists, the Gov Minister, various celebrities and a host of media. As the rocket was minutes from blast off Colin left me on stage in our auditorium in front of this august gathering with a request to busk it for a bit as he had to do a live interview off stage with BBC news. It’s at times like that when all those rocket jokes you’ve been told suddenly escape your mind. I was less impressive at filling than Ricky Gervais at the Diana concert. Some 7-8 minutes later Colin came bounding back, gave me a big wink and took control just in time for the count-down. The launch went perfectly and the evening was his.
Well I’m delighted to see that his wicked sense of fun hasn’t left him. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the space age following the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, Colin has put his name to a new book celebrating the best and worst moments of the space programme as seen through the eyes of this county’s leading cartoonists. Entitled ‘Space is a Funny Place’, more than a few of the cartoons are about the Beagle 2 mission itself. Any man who can smile at his own highlighted shortcomings is a giant to me.
I understand this is a limited print run only, available via the Cartoon Museum or from Colin directly. I think it retails for £17.50 (inc p & p within UK mainland). Colin will even sign the book and give a personal dedication if you ask nicely. It might make a brilliant late Xmas pressie if you hurry. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org to boldly go and get a copy.