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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May 2004, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Q&A: Beagle 2 inquiry
Beagle 2   Esa
Professor Southwood says he had wanted to stop the project
Professor David Southwood, the European Space Agency's science director, talked to the BBC's science correspondent Pallab Ghosh about the findings of the Beagle 2 inquiry.

PG: Professor Southwood, what does the report say about the reasons for the failure of the Beagle 2 mission?

DS: The primary reason is collective responsibility. Not enough checks and balances were in place to ensure that we really would succeed. And too high a level of risk was taken. It means that we're not pointing the finger at any individual - we're all part of it.

Was part of the collective failure too little money spent and too little time taken to do a project that was too ambitious?

DS: I think that expresses it very well. I think probably the amount of money in the end was about right. But it should have been all there, up front at the beginning.

People were distracted from attending to engineering issues, attending to testing, keeping things on schedule
The people building things like Beagle - as complex as Beagle - should not have had to be looking for money as the mission was developed. They needed to know, they needed to plan.

We in Esa needed to know they would be in the right place at the right time. And I think that's one of the real lessons to be learnt. If we're going to do something, let's decide to do it, get the funds up front and then start.

What was the problem with not having the money in place at the beginning?

DS: It meant people could not act with the security that they knew they were going to be able to do things. It meant people were distracted from attending to engineering issues, attending to testing, keeping things on schedule.

Instead, they were having to seek money, they were having to make arguments for money, they were having to raise money. There was the aim of actually making money by sponsorship. This again caused us problems with distracting people from really even expressing, totally confidently, their assessments of risk because you're limited in what you can say.

Beagle 2 on Mars

In 2001, you expressed severe doubts about whether the project would succeed. So why did you as science director decide to go ahead with the mission?

DS: I wanted it to succeed, if you really want to know my feelings about the matter. We all wanted it to succeed. The risks, though, were too high because it failed. I think I take some responsibility. I possibly could have stopped it, but on the other hand...

You wanted to stop it?

DS: I did actually, the truth be known. But I think one has to work in a collective environment. There was not a consensus we should stop and, indeed, we work as teams and one works towards the common end.

The common end was to get Beagle off the planet and to Mars. It got to Mars, I'm ever so sorry that it didn't work. But, we learnt a lot in doing so. We've got to learn the lessons of the fact that we took risks that probably were too great and do it better next time.

Why did you want it stopped in 2001?

DS: At that time I felt the managerial structure wasn't strong enough to handle such an engineering project. And in fact, following that, an industrial company stepped in and took responsibility - Astrium - and really pulled things together. And I've got to say, the engineering teams that worked in the last two years worked against a schedule that was horrendously difficult and they achieved miracles. But not quite enough the miracle of life for Beagle.

What happened to Beagle 2 as it headed to Mars?

Was Beagle a product of its time in that when it was commissioned the whole emphasis was on reducing costs?

DS: It was very much a child of its time. We were still in the era where there was a mantra: cheaper, better, faster. That mantra was an American mantra and it was dropped after two very public failures in the US in 1999 and 2000.

Beagle was already underway then and we were stuck with a problem. It was being built with a similar philosophy and in a way you can't change horses mid-stream. We decided to cross the river rather than turn back and start over again because we would never have been able to go to Mars in 2003 if we had tried to turn back.

It's a diplomatic report, mindful of people's sensitivities. But is the story that it was a brave attempt but ultimately - amateurish?

DS: I think amateurish is too hard. It was a brave attempt. Remember that lots of professional engineers were involved and indeed everybody has failed on their first attempt to go to Mars - and the Americans very spectacularly - so the word amateur is too patronising.

It was a very brave attempt. People worked with probably more enthusiasm and not enough engineering discipline. But I still think they're professional people.

But the difference is that you and a lot of other people felt that it was under-resourced from the start, so perhaps it might have been more professional not to have gone ahead with this brave attempt?

DS: I'm afraid I am the bureaucrat who says: "If you'd let me do it properly I would have been able to do it properly". That indeed was my attitude from the start. But there was an enormous public interest in trying to do things in a different way - in trying to shake up things like the European Space Agency. I don't want to sound too complacent in saying: "Well, it was a bridge too far".

A word for Colin Pillinger. You've tried not to single out any individual but he was so associated with it. He was the unstoppable force. Was he the unstoppable force?

DS: I think Colin is pretty unstoppable, but I'm not going to blame him for that. It's one of his charms. The very idea and all the capabilities we now have in Britain to do things like Beagle to look for life on Mars, the technologies and so on, are due to the mind of Colin in pushing forward the ideas that this should be done and he was unstoppable.

Perhaps he forced us all into taking risks that perhaps now we, with hindsight, can say we shouldn't have done. But I don't want to criticise Colin one bit.

Perhaps he pushed too hard.

DS: When you're pushed by Colin, you're certainly pushed hard, I'll say that.

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