Brussels, 25 May 2004
An official enquiry into the failure of the Beagle 2 Mars lander has found that 'there were programmatic and organisational reasons that led to a significantly higher risk of Beagle 2 failure than otherwise might have been the case.'
In 1997, following the failure of an earlier Russian mission, equipment for a mission to Mars became available. The schedule was tight - it was known that Mars would be at a point of closest approach to Earth during the summer of 2003 - but the European Space Agency (ESA) selected the Mars Express orbiter, and invited proposals for the addition of a lander. Beagle 2 was chosen over two other proposals.
The full report into the disappearance of the Beagle 2 will remain confidential, but a summary has been published, which includes the recommendations made by the Commission of Inquiry.
The summary implies that those involved in the mission may have been so excited by the prospect of Beagle 2 that they overlooked procedures to identify and diminish potential risks: 'It is now clear that the very high potential scientific benefits of the project may have contributed to a collective institutional underestimate by us all of the corresponding means to identify and mitigate risks that arose during development, and subsequently proved difficult to resolve due to the very tight financial, mass and schedule constraints imposed by the rigid schedule [...], and by overall budget constraints.'
It is clear that neither ESA, nor the British National Space Centre (BNSC) has given up on Mars: 'ESA will return to Mars, but next time the approach must have the capacity to handle the complexity, and scientists, engineers and industry will need to agree from the start the formal partnership arrangements and responsibilities that will apply throughout,' states the ESA/BNSC report summary.
Many of the Commission of Inquiry's recommendations relate to resources. 'Future lander missions should be under the responsibility of an Agency with appropriate capability and resources to manage it,' reads Recommendation 1. The same recommendation states that future lander/orbiter missions should be managed as an integrated whole, which was not the case with ESA's Mars Express and the UK's Beagle 2.
Continuing with the financial theme, the paper recommends that sponsoring agencies of nationally-funded contributions to ESA projects should ensure that the required financing is committed at the outset, and that it meets the estimated cost of completion. Fixed price contracting should also be avoided where possible, and both sponsor and contractor should be confident that the contractor has sufficient margins to manage any uncertainties and risks.
In terms of project management, it is recommended that formal arrangements are put in place between cooperating entities, ESA and national sponsors, and that system-level documentation is enforced. The documentation would provide all partners with the project's technical requirements and raise awareness of risks in each partner's area of responsibility.
There are a few technical recommendations, some of them relating to thorough testing prior to take-off, and some of them relating to specific components of the lander, such as the back cover and front shield. Unsure whether Beagle 2's air bag and parachute technology were to blame for the lander's disappearance, the paper also calls for adequate competencies in these technologies, and states that European planetary missions must therefore make the best use of existing expertise in the US and Russia. No single technical failure was, however, found to be clearly responsible for the mission's failure.
Finally, ESA and the BNSC state that for future high profile or high risk projects, ESA and any sponsoring agency should 'manage the expectations of the outcome of the project in a balanced and objective way to prepare for both success and failure.'
Some may question this final recommendation. While a sense of realism is necessary, many believe that the enthusiasm and faith with which the mission was presented were responsible for huge strides forward in raising the general public's interest in space. Societal interest, in turn, further justifies such experiments.
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