Rocket scientists eh

Well my old heart skipped a beat or two today when I learned that Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had taken images showing that Beagle 2 had landed safely on Mars some 11 years ago, and had failed to function only because one of the solar-power petals had failed to deploy. Somewhere up there, there’s the soul of Britain’s most famous rocket scientist looking down and smiling today.

Regular readers might recall earlier postings where I described my relationship with Prof Colin Pillinger who had the audacity to convince the European Space Agency to stick an exploratory vehicle on the top of their Mars Express rocket in the hope that he could get it to land safely on our nearest sister planet after a journey of between 50-100 million kilometres lasting 6 months, to sample evidence from the Mars’ crust to determine whether life might have existed there. And thus demonstrate that we might not be alone out there. It is almost the most important message that could have been sent back to earth. And I was seriously tempted to get my company BT, a communications provider of course, involved as the communications delivery partner on the project. Imagine the estime if we’d delivered the message that life did exist beyond our little planet. For a sponsorship guy it doesn’t get more profound than that.

Anyway I couldn’t convince the company to take on the risk and in the end it was the right call, and I agreed at the time, because ultimately the mission didn’t deliver on its mission objectives and the company would have looked like marketing failures too. I’ve described the story previously in and before that in

But here’s the thing; Colin had virtually no support, save from close colleagues and some dedicated scientists when he kicked off the project. And yet through his sheer determination and personality he got the damn thing built and launched (with a bit of publicity help from BT) and despatched towards the surface of the red planet and, in the process, inspired millions to get a little bit hooked on space science. Who else has done that in the last 50 years? In this country…no-one.

When Beagle failed to send back a signal on Xmas day (and every subsequent one) the project was deemed a failure which was a great great shame. As well as the tiny battery reserves, a little bit of Colin died that day too I suspected. But I loved the guy’s indomitable spirit and his belief that the project had delivered for Britain and its technological credentials. I’m not sure everyone shared the view at the time. But I didn’t care to be honest because I thought he was just a terrific guy and I enjoyed every meeting with him (even though an early one was quite tricky).

He died last year and I was tremendously saddened at that news but today I know his family and colleagues will be delighted to know that he actually got within one tiny mechanical manoeuvre of pulling off the most extraordinary bit of scientific discovery for Britain since Darwin sailed on the first Beagle.

I’m having a quiet drink to you tonight Colin, old friend…

colin pillinger



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