Beagle's bark still has bite left in it

June 9, 2006

Colin Pillinger draws inspiration to plan his next assault on the Red Planet as Jeff Wayne's musical War of the Worlds enjoys a revival

"With just a handful of men, we'll start all over again." In the aftermath of Beagle 2 's loss, that line from Jeff Wayne's musical War of the Worlds seemed to convey the exact mood of the small group of stubborn scientists and engineers who sat down to design what we called Beagle 2e ("e" stands for evolution).

The lyrics to Brave New World were sung by the idealistic Artilleryman as he outlined his plans for a new civilisation that would rise from the ashes of the war with the Martians in H. G. Wells's classic story. Those words also encapsulated our determination and spirit as we discussed a new space mission that would incorporate all the systems, strategies and strengths needed to survive everything the Red Planet could come up with to prevent us from achieving our goals a second time.

Wayne's song provided an optimistic background soundtrack for the seven-minute DVD - essentially a weepy - that we put together from the great archive of video recordings made during the British mission to seek out life on Mars, from the initial fundraising to the inquiries into what went wrong. It's a reprise that I often use during lectures about the project.

Listening to Wayne's new production of War of the Worlds at Wembley Arena a few weeks ago was very enjoyable. While the music had changed little - the production was just a bit longer than the original score - it sounded as fresh as ever, despite being nearly 30 years old (was it really begun in 1976, the year the Viking spacecraft landed on Mars?). Actors performed the songs on stage with film as a backing. The sepia images of a panic-stricken population, fleeing in terror from the three-legged Martian fighting machines, worked extremely well.

I am a great believer in creating full-scale models of spacecraft to get the message across to the public. So I really appreciated the enormous fighting machine that descended from the roof of the auditorium. It added authenticity. Authenticity is something that Wayne values.

Later, I asked Wayne, the producer, composer and conductor of the show, whether he considered resetting the story in the US, considering the financial rewards such transplantation has brought other versions? "Not for a microsecond," he replied. The story is a social comment on the horrors of war and particularly on Victorian Britain's colonial expansion, Wayne noted, adding: "The music is an attempt to convey the innermost feelings of the characters in the drama."

Good, I like that. Beagle 2 was, likewise, quintessentially British; we really wanted to show that the Brits had not lost their thirst for exploration - it is part of our cultural heritage - though I am not sure that Wayne would approve of that particular sentiment.

We went on to discuss how the Martians were defeated not by terrestrial soldiers but by terrestrial micro-organisms. I explained how preventing the transfer of microbiology between planets, now called planetary protection, is a real problem for space missions. Accidentally sending terrestrial bacteria to Mars might wipe out a delicate Martian biology. Then we could never answer the question "is there or was there indigenous life?"

Likewise, a few extremophile bugs, adapted to a harsh Martian ecosystem, could run riot if brought back to Earth. The consequences of that would dwarf the risks posed by avian flu, foot-and-mouth disease and even HIV/Aids. Wayne, who has no science background, was surprised. Wells, a biology teacher, was all too aware of the problem.

We went on to debate the viability of three-legged monsters. I have always considered them the weak point of Wells's story. Even primitive Victorian weapons could shoot off one leg, which would have immediately disabled the machine.

This prompted Wayne to elaborate on his future plans: not only an animated version of the story but also an even bigger and better project that will feature real fighting machines. His team has already built a number of these entities that walk, in part to work out their movements for the animation. They even have a ship that sinks à la Thunder Child , the doomed warship that endeavoured to protect human fugitives, which is destined for a stadium-scale War of the Worlds production. This extravaganza is to be launched in China, culminating in a performance that will coincide with the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

I winced, green with envy. If only we could get some serious support for Beagle 2e . Then we could upstage Wayne with a British lander on Mars returning data to Earth that could run alongside the London Olympics in 2012. What a message that would send out to the world!

And if, as a result of the mission, we find that we are not alone in the universe, that message might even be: "New competitors to our Olympic Games, welcome!"

Colin Pillinger is professor of planetary sciences, the Open University.

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