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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Cartoon history of race to Mars
By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter

Colin Pillinger (BBC)
One cartoon shows Colin Pillinger in the guise of a beagle dog

Colin Pillinger gazes at one of his favourite cartoons hanging on the wall at London's Cartoon Museum.

It shows two dogs reading a newspaper with the headline, "Beagle 2 vanishes".

"It's probably off on a scent somewhere," says the caption of the picture, published in Horse and Hound magazine.

Despite the much publicised loss of Beagle 2 spacecraft in December 2003, and the criticism that followed, the man who masterminded the mission has never lost his sense of humour.

"When we said that we were going to call our spacecraft Beagle 2, everybody said, 'What an inspired idea it was'," the professor of planetary sciences at the Open University recalls.

"When Beagle didn't call home we had loads and loads of letters saying, 'Don't you know the Beagle is the worst dog to let off the lead; they run away, they don't take any notice of you when you call, they're after a scent, they only come home when they are hungry, and they show no signs of remorse. It sums it all up'."

Human fascination

Several years on, Professor Pillinger has turned his hand to art - putting together an exhibition of cartoons on the planet that has jinxed many a spacecraft.

Mars exploration through the eyes of the cartoonist

"It gives us an opportunity to reach different people who are not necessarily turned on to science and engineering," he says.

"I want to demonstrate that scientists do have a sense of humour, we are human and we enjoy a laugh even if it is at our own expense sometimes."

The display is a quirky pictorial history of our fascination with the Red Planet over the centuries, cataloguing the highs and lows of Mars exploration through the irreverent, and sometimes cruel, eyes of the cartoonist.

"It does tell a story - there are all manner of subjects covered - there's the history of Mars exploration, the fact that Mars comes close to us every 15-17 years; there's the story of looking for life, Beagle's got its own little section," says Pillinger.

"And we mustn't forget that the cartoon and art have been a political weapon for a long time," he adds, wryly.

"It's just amazing how many people have been sent to Mars by cartoonists, particularly political figures, who lose their way, shall we say."

Fact and fiction

His inspiration for the exhibition came from a cartoon on the front page of the Daily Telegraph dating back to 1996, when a debate was raging about whether a Martian meteorite contained fossilised life.

Hopefully, through the efforts of the Beagle team, we have put space exploration back on the map in the UK
Colin Pillinger
It shows a meteorite being prodded by a scientist, and squealing "ouch".

"That suddenly reached me and I said, 'Goodness gracious, he's reaching a million and a half people with that cartoon on the front page'.

"This is where I can extend the science story to get to a big audience."

Many of the cartoons in the exhibition were collected by Colin Pillinger and his wife, Judith; others have been sourced from overseas and from the cartoonists themselves.

The curator of the Cartoon Museum, Anita O'Brien, says science and art are not always seen as natural bedfellows but Mars in particular has long exercised our imaginations.

"People's ideas [of Mars] are a mixture of fact and complete fiction," she says.

"Things that we know now are not true - the whole idea of canals on Mars and so on - are something which cartoonists have really run with.

"I think also that Beagle captured people's imagination; the name and the fact that it was British gives a real wealth of interest in cartoons about Mars.

"You have the imagination and the science coming through in the cartoons."

'Journey into Space'

The exhibition is sponsored by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc), which stumped up some of the cash for the Beagle 2 mission.

Cartoon on a wall (BBC)
This cartoon dates back to 1926
Head of communications at PParc, Peter Barratt, says he hopes people will be entertained by the exhibition, learn a little science, and come away enthused enough to support future missions.

"It's another opportunity to bring the fascination of space and scientific research to hopefully a wider audience through cartoon art," he says.

Colin Pillinger's own inspiration for space exploration came as a child of the 1950s, reading the Eagle comic and listening to Journey into Space on the radio.

"Every scientist who's in space who's my age read the Eagle," he says.

"Of course the Eagle stories were mostly about Venus; but I'm particularly interested in Mars. I enjoyed the radio programmes by Charles Chilton, Journey into Space, when it was accepted that Britain would be the first to explore the Moon and Mars, and it was a disappointment to me of course that we weren't involved.

"But, hopefully, through the efforts of the Beagle team, we have put space exploration back on the map in the UK. After all, we have a tradition of this, it is part of our culture in the same way that cartoons are part of our culture."

Jinxed planet

Many of the 120 cartoons from 100 artists are from Christmas 2003, when Beagle made its ill-fated plunge towards the surface of Mars.

If there's a picture of Beagle in a crater, it gives me the chance to tell people why that might have happened
Colin Pillinger
So did he ever pick up the paper in the morning, and wince?

"No, I believe that these people are doing a job and they're actually allowing me to explain," says Colin Pillinger.

"If there's a picture of Beagle in a crater, it gives me the chance to tell people why that might have happened so it's just a vehicle to me.

"It's very difficult to go to Mars," he adds. "It's not easy to land on a planet where the atmosphere is a hundred and fiftieth of the Earth's. So there've been a lot of failures.

"Cartoonists have recorded those failures. This gives me a chance to explain just how difficult it is."

He says some cartoonists have even phoned him and apologised for being particularly close to the mark.

"Quite a lot of the time they've actually rung me up and they've said, 'I didn't really want to draw that but of course you didn't succeed so the editor insisted on the bit with the broken spacecraft whereas in actual fact I wanted to do the one which was, 'Yippee we've achieved it'," he says.

"It's very difficult to get it over to people. When we fail they see it as an enormous waste of money; when we succeed, they think it's a ruse for us to get more money but one of the messages you have got to get over is that all this money is not spent on Mars.

"If you have a mission costing millions, it's only actually a few thousand pounds worth of stuff that goes to the planet.

"All the feedback, the technology, the training, and the thought process that goes into it is still here on Earth.

"That's a success story, that's not a failing story."

Mars in their Eyes is open to the public until 1 July at the Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London, WC1A 2HH.

Mars pictures reveal frozen sea
21 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature
Q&A: Beagle 2 inquiry
25 May 04 |  Science/Nature

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