For the European Space Agency (ESA) and the British government, the Beagle 2 Mars lander was a bold experiment in the delegation of project management to the people building the probe.
But according to an official inquiry, this experiment was an expensive failure and should not be repeated. The £40-million (US$72-million) probe was lost as it attempted to land on Mars on Christmas Day last year. Future projects, the inquiry says, should be far more rigorously controlled and documented.
The panel's summarized findings were released on 24 May and swiftly accepted by ESA. “The creative approach used with Beagle 2 was probably a step too far,” admits David Southwood, the space agency's chief scientist. “Maybe I should have never let it go.”
Beagle 2 was an adjunct to Mars Express, its mother craft, and ESA allowed its British design team, led by Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist at the Open University, Milton Keynes, considerable autonomy in managing the project. The lander hitched a ride with Mars Express when it left Earth last June. When it reached Mars' orbit on 19 December, Beagle 2 was successfully ejected, but was never heard from again.
ESA contributed £20 million to the probe's costs and most of the rest came from the UK government. Additional funding came from EADS-Astrium — a Stevenage-based company that built some of the lander's components — the Open University and the National Space Centre in Leicester.
The inquiry panel, which was chaired by ESA inspector-general, René Bonnefoy, and David Link, a former director of EADS-Astrium, argues forcefully that ESA should have treated Beagle 2 as an integral part of Mars Express.
The full report is not being made public, apparently to protect the confidentiality of submissions from ESA member governments and from private companies. But the panel released a list of 19 recommendations, which have been accepted by Southwood and by the British science minister, David Sainsbury.
About half of the recommendations concern the unprecedented level of autonomy that the project enjoyed from ESA's normal management structures. The panel roundly condemns this approach, and calls for future projects “which are critical to overall mission success or have a very high public profile” to be managed directly by the agency, and subject to its normal planning and costing procedures.
The other findings highlight specific shortcomings in the testing and cost-accounting of the Beagle 2 mission. They say that future probes should have more robust telemetry and communications systems, should be rigorously tested for resistance to shock, and designed so that hatches and other detachable parts are less likely to collide with the main body if they fall off.
The panel also recommends far more rigorous testing of the parachute system, which some experts have identified as the most likely cause of Beagle 2's failure. But the inquiry reached no firm conclusion on what became of the missing probe.
Accepting the findings at a press conference in London, Sainsbury said: “We must apply to the instrument the same kind of rigour and controls that are applied to the main spacecraft.”
And Southwood accepted some personal responsibility for the craft's loss. “I was irresponsible not to have taken responsibility,” he told Nature. He added that the probe's management structure had lacked accountability. “You've got to know who is giving orders to whom.”
Pillinger said that the project team had done as well as it could. “We did our best, and that's all we could do,” he said. “What I'm interested in is looking to the future,” he added, urging ESA to make the earliest possible decision to return to Mars again.
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