It’s nice to see a mission to get something to Mars actually go to plan; we haven’t been doing too well in recent years, what with Beagle 2 (which still hasn’t been found, although Colin Pillinger and team still haven’t given-up hope) and the disastrous 1999 NASA missions, Mars Climate Orbiter (which is believed to have burned-up in the thin Martian atmosphere), and Mars Polar Lander, which was lost together with its sister mission, Deep Space 2.
I have to admit feeling sorry for the Beagle 2 team, especially Colin Pillinger, who turned the mission into a personal crusade to show that we (in the UK) really could do this. Along the way they have made some remarkable achievements, especially in terms of miniaturising the scientific instruments so that Beagle could come-in under the tight weight-limit imposed by constraints on the launch vehicle. All, of course, in stark constrast to the comparitively well-funded American effort, whose rovers cost somewhere in the region of half a billion dollars to develop.
It’s a shame that the British government hasn’t shown more of an interest in space; at more than one point in the past, we have had world-beating technology, only to be stymied at the last minute, usually by a complete lack of interest from the establishment… Black Knight and HOTOL are probably the most prominent examples, but there are others too (see the excellent article “What went wrong with Dan Dare?”, written by Dave Wright and Nicholas Hill for History Today magazine—for those that don’t know who Dan Dare was, take a look at www.dan-dare.net and www.dan-dare.org.)
Having said all that, it is interesting to note that, despite strong competition from the United States in the form of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the French Arianespace company still manages to dominate the commercial launch services market, attracting over 50% of the global market for geostationary satellite launches. So at least Europe isn’t doing too badly as a whole, even though we only spend one quarter as much as the U.S., per capita, on space exploration and research.
Still, who knows… the growth of amateur rocketry in the U.K., coupled with the enthusiasm drummed-up by the likes of Colin Pillinger, may yet see Britain re-entering the space race, albeit in a rather unusual manner.