In the news

December 10, 1999

As a second American mission in three months looks to have bitten the Mars dust, Colin Pillinger, leader of the planned European mission to Mars, must feel torn.

The apparent failure of Mars Polar Lander has delayed a chance to prove, as Pillinger strongly believes, that the red planet may once have supported life. But it does make it more likely that the eventual proof could come from Pillinger's own expedition. Certainly, the publicity will come in handy.

Pillinger, 56, has been as tireless in trying to raise the Pounds 28 million needed to send Beagle 2 skywards in 2003 as he has in organising the mission itself.

He has adeptly pressed the right publicity buttons, recruiting Britpop singer Damon Albarn to compose music for testing Beagle 2's transmission equipment from Mars and Britart wildchild Damien Hirst to provide a spot painting to test cameras there.

He has also approached companies to advertise on the spacecraft, provided they are "companies associated with the philosophy of the project" - no tobacco advertising, he says.

Pillinger's fascination with the possibility of life on other planets began as a child, when he listened to H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Brought up in Bristol, he was educated at Kingswood Grammar School and University College, Swansea, where he studied chemistry. While researching for a PhD, he saw an advertisement for a job analysing lunar rock and moved back to Bristol. There he met his wife, Judy, now a researcher in his department.

In 1984 he moved to the Open University. He has been there ever since and was appointed a professor in 1990.

His search for life on other planets appeared to get one step closer in the mid- 1980s when he discovered organic material in a martian meteorite.

He indulges his interest in life on this planet through farming, animals and soccer.

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