Sorry to have been away so long. When the Beagle report came out, I was happily wandering around the Cheviots, near the English/Scottish border. And I'd have been a lot less happy if I'd been discovering that ESA was refusing to publish the results of the Beagle inquiry. In fact I'd have been really quite cross.
I mean we paid for the damn thing. We deserve an account of how it was lost. Or rather, of the various ways in which it might have been lost, since no smoking gun ever turned up. I'm a European with a fair degree of sympathy for our current continental project, but this sort of behind-closed-doors, if-we'd-been-in-charge-it-would-have-been-OK approach reminds me just why European institutions are not trusted by the public. Combine this euro-paternalism with the market-supremacist anglo-saxon "commercial confidentiality" stuff -- is there really no way that companies doing public work can be forced to do without this confidentiality when their work clearly failed? -- and it feels like the worst of all possible worlds.
It's also a disservice to people elsewhere trying to put together future space missions. The reports into the 1999 NASA losses had a lot of nuggets for future mission designers. (The fact that the most important of them -- "you really should have a radio link sending telemetry back as you go through the atmosphere" -- was ignored by the Beaglers doesn't mean it wasn't a crucial lesson. Quite the reverse.)
You have to feel for poor David Southwood, ESA's head of science. My friends at the Economist quote him saying "We live in an open society too, but it's open in a different way", and conceding "that having the inspector general of ESA chair the inquiry did 'a little bit of harm to the word independent'." I'll say. But sorry though one feels for Southwood -- he's a nice, smart guy who must be embarrassed about having to say things like that -- his position is not a terribly good one. In fact, you could argue that Southwood really should have resigned by now. According to an interview he did with Pallab for BBC online, Southwood thought Beagle should have been cancelled back in 2001 because it was too risky. And he thought that if he had argued this way within ESA, he could have got it cancelled. And he didn't try.
If he had, we might have avoided losing the hefty-but-still-indeterminate (can't ESA and/or the British government even release a full project budget to us all? Or is that commercially sensitive too?) sum spent on Beagle 2. If that money (and effort) had not been spent on Beagle 2 we might have saved Eddington, killed by budget pressure last year. We might even have an ESA-sanctioned Netlander ready for 2007. (Netlander would probably have died anyway; but being in a position to say it would be the first European mission to the martian surface might have done it some good)
Everyone says that you shouldn't be swayed by hindsight. But Southwood had foresight. He looked at the Beagle project, and with admirable foresight thought "this is too risky -- I should really argue for its cancellation". And then he went along with it. By way of justification he suggests that ESA needed to become a bit faster cheaper and better. But the Mars Express programme met those requirements even without Beagle on board. The parliamentary committee that's going to hold hearings on the loss of Beagle 2 might like to take these matters up with him.
Meanwhile, Pillinger pours scorn on the ESA report's published recommendations as "motherhood statements". I'm not quite sure what to make of that. Maybe Pillinger doesn't approve of motherhood much. If he did, then maybe Beagle 2 would have complied with a few more of these "motherhood statements". Take number 10: "Future planetary missions should be designed with robust margins to cope with the inherent uncertainties, and they should not be initiated without adequate and timely resources to achieve that." Yes, it may be a motherhood statement -- but it didn't apply to Beagle 2. Likewise number 12: "For future planetary entry missions, a more robust communications system should be used, allowing direct commanding of the lander for essential actuations and resets without software involvement -- enabling recoveries in catastrophic situations." Likewise most of the rest of the recommendations.
These recommendations would have more heft if the report showing the degree to which Beagle didn't match up to them were to be published, and I think it's scummy that it's not available to Colin any more than to the rest of us (though he's been briefed on it). But even without the report, you kind of have to assume that when the recommendations say something like (number 15) "Elimination of internal connectors for mass saving should be avoided if at all possible. But if unavoidable, a stringent system of check and independent crosscheck should be followed during the final wiring operation," it means that Beagle 2 did eliminate some internal connectors to save mass, and that a stringent system of check and independent crosscheck wasn't followed. That's not a motherhood statement. It appears to be a clear, specific criticism.
But Colin is not very good on criticism. I remember hearing him and David Southwood talking about this at a press event at the Royal Society last year. Colin took umbrage at the suggestion that outside review was necessary, and did so in what I found a rather striking way. As I remember it -- I'd be open to correction -- he argued that no-one had a greater interest in the success of Beagle 2 than the Beagle 2 team, and so no one would do a better job of evaluating the project than they themselves would do. I think this was a) sincere and b) testimony to the fact that Colin just doesn't see the point of outside criticism. I'd say this is a significant lack in someone trying to manage something as complex and un-get-rightable as a planetary lander mission.
The Pill now seems to be taking the line that it was Mars that failed, not the Beagle. The martian atmosphere obstinately refused to perform in the way it was expected to, and that screwed everything up. I don't know how plausible this is -- as I mentioned before, there's some doubt on the matter, and the views of the ESA panel are of course unavailable to us -- but even if it is plausible, a) other failure modes are plausible too and b) surely a decent lander design should have taken atmospheric uncertainties into account. But the idea that Beagle 2 was imperfect in any way (other, perhaps, than a lack of support, financial and otherwise) is not one Colin explores very readily in public.
Talking to Tim Radford in the Guardian, he tells us that the way the Beagle 2 team pulled together was "a model that everybody should follow". To put it mildly, there is no evidence that this is the case. He goes on to say "I think we probably did more to inspire interest in science and engineering in the country than anything else ever done before." Really? Isambard Kingdom Brunel -- or for that matter Frank Hornby -- thou shouldst be living at this hour.
Colin goes on to say "I don't think the country will begrudge Beagle 2 being given some more money". On this last one, he may well be right. Most people don't really care about what space missions do. They're just glad we have them. Heroic failure now and then just makes it more romantic, in a cavalier sort of way. I, on the other hand, want space missions to work, not to waste money, and to produce data. It's not clear to me that Beagle 2 fits this roundhead agenda at all.
There's a tendency -- Tim shows it, I think the Independent editorialised along the same lines, and I've picked it up elsewhere -- to indulge the romantic spirit, and the Pill. To say "at least they tried" and "they nearly got there" (an untested assumption -- Beagle 2 may have been dead three times over from different faults, or incapable of doing science. We just don't know). And then to suggest the team should try again. I think this is a tendency worth resisting. A lot of people's hard work was lost because the Beagle 2 project was mismanaged, rushed and hand to mouth. The romantic response to this point is a better-to-have-loved-and-lost sort of thing; people say that if Beagle 2 hadn't been mismanaged, rushed and hand to mouth it would never have happened in the first place. Well here's the thing. Whatever happened in teh first place, in the final analysis it didn't happen.
Obviously there's good stuff to be taken from the Beagle 2 experience. But it was bought at a stiff price. And to say that there were not real lessons to be learned, and it shouldn't have been handled very differently and that it was just unlucky, and that all we need do now is try again -- that's just insulting to the idea of doing these things properly. Which is bad for the people who pay for these projects, and bad for the people who work on them.