Sunday, December 28, 2003

Tactical Defeat, Strategic Victory

We've had the premature euphoria then the sudden clash with reality, now we're onto stage 3 - the Beagle backlash is well under way.

Beagle II may have literally bit the dust, but when did our sense of perspective get run over by a planet ? It's hardly wallowing in failure to note a number of strategic gains delivered by Beagle II. Who even knew Britain had a space program ? Yet, a craft was assembled at a fraction of the cost, and in the fraction of the time, of previous craft. The craft may be history, but the skills that built it are still up and running. True, the mission was a failure. Historically, 90% of the previous missions to Mars have been as well. It would be interesting to know what William Langley thinks of those who sent off the earlier probes. Are Americans uncomfortable with the idea of success ? Do they find the prospect of failure irresistible ? Or do they accept the risks of failure, and resolve to learn the lessons and apply them in future ?

Politically, failure at this late stage may be a blessing in disguise. As much as the country has admired Prof Pillinger's team and their skill at assembling a probe out of the space equivalent of used washing-up bottles and double-sided sticky tape, success could have created the expectation that all missions could be run this way, with microbudgets and plans drafted on beer mats. NASA is notorious for never spending an unnecessary dollar where an unnecessary billion will do, but it can't all be flab. The British taxpayer now knows what can be accomplished, while being put on notice that it is a big job, after all [plus the yank hating lunatics for whom the probe was some kind of interplanetary V-sign to the US have been silenced].

Similarly, about that Prof Pillinger: for sure, he played the eccentric prof, doubtless drawing fire from his colleagues. But he get his probe to Mars, even if a little faster than planned. In short, the Prof met the public halfway, gave them what they wanted and got what he wanted. The hypothesis that the British public is blindly antagonistic to science is hereby blown out of the water.

For some people, the fact Britain can never have its own shuttle program means we should give the whole space thing up as a bad job. We can't do everything, but what we do, we can do well. After all, it ain't all a race. If anyone finds extraterrestrial life, it'll be a great day for science. Unless it's the French, in which case we'll be plunged into interplanetary war with any half-decent species.

No comments: