Leader: Where Beagles dare...

January 2, 2004

On Christmas Day, 16 million people visited the Beagle 2 website, making the non-appearance of the UK's Mars lander more popular than the final episode of Only Fools and Horses . Beagle 2 's apparent stage fright came as a dreadful disappointment to everyone, not least the scientists and engineers at the Open and Leicester universities and 100 other institutions and firms throughout the country who have worked on the mission for years.

Although efforts to coax the lander from the Martian wings may go on for several weeks, the silence spoke volumes of the risks involved in getting to Mars. The US has managed it just three times, the Soviets and Japanese never.

Yet, despite cruel jibes about heroic British failure, Beagle 2 has already been a spectacular success. Colin Pillinger, the Open University professor, has deservedly been lauded for the vision and drive that turned an ambitious dream into thrilling reality.

Credit, too, to Lord Sainsbury, the science minister who long championed this bluest of blue-skies projects. There was little he could do to persuade Beagle 2 to phone home. But he did the next best thing by publicly backing the long-term exploration of the solar system and insisting high-risk projects would continue to get government support. He knows that among the 16 million who searched the web in vain for signs of life from Mars is a future generation of British scientists.

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