Beagle 2 Report: What happens on Mars, stays on Mars

By SpaceRef Editor
June 1, 2004
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Beagle 2 Report: What happens on Mars, stays on Mars

Mars Needs Life Sciences Research, Not Beagle 2 Coverup

As a public relations exercise, the British-led Beagle 2 Mars lander mission was a raging success–that is, until it plunged into the Martian atmosphere never to be heard from again. Notwithstanding that Mars is a very harsh mistress–missions fail with rueful frequency –it is now clear the cards were more heavily stacked than usual against the diminutive Beagle 2, and long before it was launched toward the red planet .

Courted for its support during development, the public is now being shut out of the post-mission report. This is ostensibly on the grounds of commercial confidentiality and an ongoing legal spat between two of the program participants.

That sounds like a thin excuse. Even just the recommendations from the joint European Space Agency/British National Space Center (BNSC) failure review team make for uneasy reading. There is, however, more than a waft of suspicion that the underlying motivation is to avoid numerous red faces among the various players.

If there are legal or proprietary concerns about a name here or an assertion there, then black out the offending words. But publish the rest, warts and all. Withholding the whole report is wrong.

Engineers and managers on future missions can learn from Beagle’s missteps. If this means industry, agencies and government accepting some responsibility for a less than stellar performance, then so be it. It goes with the job. Merely saying, “Here’s what we could do better next time” is not sufficient.

Beagle 2 was a good idea, but as the recommendations make woefully clear, there was a painful gulf between the concept and implementation. Inadequacies lurk thinly veiled behind the curtain of many of the 19 recommendations–be it a lack of coordinated management, insufficient (or at least late) funding, and failure to test the spacecraft and its science packages in an appropriate fashion.

Buoyant optimism is no substitute for satisfactory program management. And a list of recommendations cannot replace the detailed exposition by honest investigators of what went awry.

Europe should renew and redouble its efforts to get a Beagle 2-type life sciences package onto the surface of Mars. Trying to conceal–at least in detail–the mission’s failings is apt to undermine, rather than shore up, public support. It will foment a view that ESA and BNSC officials cannot be trusted and are unwilling to face up to their own mistakes.

Editorial, Aviation Week & Space Technology 05/31/2004, page 82.

Copyright 2004 Aviation Week and Space Technology. Reprinted by permission

SpaceRef staff editor.