London, 02 Nov 2004
This inquiry focussed upon the way in which the UK Government supported the Beagle 2 consortium in the development of a lander for the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express mission and the implications of the project for future Government space policy.
We found that the Government was admirably enthusiastic about this exciting but high risk project. However, it was unable to respond to its relatively sudden emergence to find the guaranteed financial backing that was needed to support the development of a lander against extremely tight time and mass constraints. As a result of this, and the failure of sponsorship income to materialise, the project could not proceed to its development and testing phases as early as it should, with a consequent detrimental impact on its chances of success. We have called for improvements in the Government's capacity to respond to major financial commitments at short notice.
The decision for the lander to be developed separately from the orbiter has been acknowledged to be wrong. It reduced the scope for flexible and co-ordinated management of the mission. It also contributed to tensions in the relationship between the Beagle 2 consortium, ESA and other contractors, which increased as technical difficulties with the lander created doubts in some quarters at ESA about the viability of the lander. The decision was in line with existing ESA policy. It was also reinforced by a desire on the UK side for the lander to be distinctively British and a reluctance by ESA Member States to take any financial responsibility for a UK-led project. These concerns must be overcome in future, ESA-managed, missions.
We found that oversight of the Beagle 2 project, both by ESA and the UK Government, was lacking. When the project ran into difficulties, both sides belatedly intervened to introduce more certainty to the financial and management arrangements, but failed to ensure that the most important weaknesses in the mission were adequately addressed.
The Beagle 2 project had wider goals than the search for life on Mars. Technologies developed by UK teams have potential uses in other fields, such as medicine. We welcome the emphasis the Government has given to the science in society and educational objectives behind its support for the project, which helped justify the financial commitment made. The Beagle 2 project also placed the UK in a strong position to contribute to future ESA space exploration missions. These benefits should not be wasted. In this context, we welcome the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's (PPARC) decision to fund early UK participation in ESA's Aurora space exploration programme. Long term participation will be expensive however. In view of the benefits accruing to the wider scientific community and UK science more generally, we have recommended that the Government does not leave it to PPARC alone to fund future UK involvement.