MPs deliver a rocket to 'deeply flawed' Beagle 2 programme

July 9, 2004

Colin Pillinger, the Open University scientist who led Beagle 2 , the UK's failed mission to Mars, defended himself against a fresh rain of blows from the European Space Agency this week, writes Anna Fazackerley.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee pushed and prodded David Southwood, Esa director of science programmes, to voice his criticisms of the mission at a scrutiny session on Monday.

The MPs' efforts were rewarded. Professor Pillinger sat red-faced and exasperated in the audience as Professor Southwood slammed his team's management structure as "frankly a mess" and "deeply flawed".

Professor Southwood added that with clear managerial structures, the probe, thought to have landed on Mars last Christmas Day, but which has not been heard of since, could have been subject to more rigorous tests.

Although Professor Southwood peppered his responses with compliments, there was no ambiguity about the fact that he had always considered the project doomed. "I wanted it to be successful, but I thought it wouldn't work," he said, as Professor Pillinger spluttered in the background.

Asked why he didn't pull the plug, Professor Southwood replied: "I didn't have the authority."

The comments punctured the broadly upbeat story told earlier by Professor Pillinger and colleagues. Ever the PR man, he had told the committee he had not had any sleepless nights over the project. He denied accusations of amateurism. Given another chance, he "wouldn't do anything differently".

He is pitching for another attempt. Outwardly, he has Esa's support. "I would jump for joy if the Government wanted to do that," Professor Southwood said, before one more blow below the belt. "With the same managerial structure, I would give advice against it," he said.

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