Friday, December 26, 2003

Belated season's greetings to all. I trust your holidays have been more restful than mine.

For those following the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, I'm afraid the news is not looking good. Beagle 2 was supposed to touch down on the Issidis Planitia early on Christmas Morning and then send out a contact signal an hour or so later. But, as yet, nothing has been heard from it and, although everyone seems to be putting on a brave face, it seems increasingly likely that Beagle 2 has crashed. I feel incredibly sorry for Prof Colin Pillinger, the man who, almost single handedly, put together the mission. I also fear that this might deal a death blow to Britain's nascent ambitions as a space-faring nation.

Not many people realise it now, but in the 1950s and 60s Britain had a fairly advanced space programme. The Blue Streak rocket, roughly equivalent to the US Atlas, was very successful as the first stage of the European ELDO launcher. ELDO was ultimately abandoned because of problems with its French and German 2nd and 3rd stages but Blue Streak performed perfectly every time it was fired (11 in total). Even after the cancellation of ELDO and Blue Streak, the British continued with the development of Black Arrow, a small rocket which, in 1971, put a British satellite into orbit. Black Arrow was, like a lot of high tech projects of the period, subject to the economic malaise which beset Britain at the time and was cancelled in 1971. In canceling Black Arrow, the Brits became the first nation in history to abandon their space programme after developing rockets and using them to launch satellites. In the years since then Britain has more or less turned its back on space and contributes only a very small amount to the European Space Agency, ESA.

All of this is a round about way of suggesting that there was a time when Britain had serious ambitions as a space power and, although Beagle 2 was hardly likely to herald a return to those days, it may have bumped up space in the list of national priorities. Its failure might therefore convince the Brits that their earlier decision to withdraw from space related activities was the correct one. What a shame that would be.

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