No.78 of Session 2003-04 2 November 2004
AMATEURISH "GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT" BEHIND FAILURES OF BEAGLE 2 PROJECT
A report released today argues that the failure of the Beagle 2 Mars lander can be traced to the Government's unwillingness to commit funding early enough and the failure of ESA and the UK Government to monitor the project sufficiently closely. The Science and Technology Committee say the lack of guaranteed funding left the Consortium behind the Beagle 2 project held together by an amateurish "gentleman's agreement" that allowed a key backer to pull out without penalty and hampered efforts to secure the necessary funding.
While the MPs welcomed the moral support given by the Government to a worthwhile but risky project, they say that the DTI's initial failure to guarantee the project and to secure funding from the European Space Agency (ESA) left it searching for commercial funding. This was not forthcoming, despite £232,000 paid to agencies to secure sponsorship. The lack of initial funding undermined the project's credibility and its chances of success.
The strained relations between ESA and the British team developing the Mars lander - fuelled at least in part by the team's desire to retain the British "branding" of the project - affected co-operation between the main parties involved. The MPs call for future missions to be managed by ESA, with strong UK participation.
The Committee say it was clear that senior figures at the ESA thought the Beagle 2 project - which cost the UK taxpayer £25 million - had little chance of success, yet ESA did not make these doubts clear until after the mission had failed.
The MPs criticise ESA's and the UK Government's refusal to publish in full their own Commission of Inquiry Report into the failure of Beagle as an "affront to accountability", arguing that political embarrassment rather than genuine commercial or legal objections seemed to be the real reason.
"ESA and the UK wanted a Mars lander on the cheap. The DTI should have been on the pitch getting involved, rather than cheering from the touchline and coming on as a second half substitute when things went wrong. As a result, the scientists had to go chasing celebrities for sponsorship when they might have been testing rockets" said Dr Ian Gibson MP, Chairman of the committee.
"Britain now has the expertise to take a leading role in European space exploration through ESA's Aurora programme, and inspire the next generation of British kids to get excited by science. But the lessons of Beagle must be learnt. Future missions must be properly funded and managed as one integrated project, by the European Space Agency."
"Was this £25 million well spent? I think the answer is yes, if the successes of Beagle are built upon. This project was cutting edge science no matter what happened on Mars: the Beagle scientists proved that the UK is a real player in space exploration and developed technologies with huge potential medical and other benefits."
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Notes to editors:
Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Science and Technology Committee is empowered to examine the "expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies". The Committee was appointed on 12 November 2001.
As part of the inquiry, the Committee took oral evidence from the Beagle 2 team and from the European Space Agency on 5 July; and from the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury, PPARC and the BNSC on 12 July 2004.
Membership of the Committee:
Dr Ian Gibson (Lab, Norwich North) (Chairman) Mr Tony McWalter (Lab, Hemel Hempstead)
Paul Farrelly (Lab, Newcastle-under-Lyme) Dr Andrew Murrison (Con, Westbury)
Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon) Geraldine Smith (Lab, Morecambe and Lunesdale)
Kate Hoey (Lab, Vauxhall) Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point)Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East) Dr Desmond Turner (Lab, Brighton Kemptown)
Mr Robert Key (Con, Salisbury)