Beagle 2: public memory and national popular culture

The next time that British involvement in space exploration caught the public’s attention, it involved a strong sense of nationalistic flagging by the mission’s protagonists. ‘Beagle 2’, a Mars lander carrying instruments to detect signs of life, crashed onto the Martian surface on Christmas Day 2003, instantly becoming a national news story of plucky British failure. The project was conceived by the British space scientist Colin Pillinger, a specialist in the analysis of extra-terrestrial materials, and one of the first scientists outside of the USA to examine samples of Moon rock brought back by the Apollo missions.45 It was, however, the search for extra-terrestrial life that had inspired the concept of Beagle 2, as imagined narratives of life on Mars that were stirred so effectively by H G Wells a century earlier (see Chapter 2) were re-enacted in a captivating piece of scientific theatre. In 1996, NASA announced the publication of a research paper claiming that a meteorite of Martian origin that had landed in Antarctica in 1984 contained ancient signs of microbial life.46 This ‘discovery’ became a major media event, with the US President Bill Clinton stating that ‘its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined’, in a statement that captured the interface between science, the sublime and the imaginative.47 Following the NASA announcement. Pillinger’s comment piece in Nature, along with Open University colleagues Monica Grady and Ian Wright, provocatively engaged the scientific community with the notion of life on Mars.48 The metaphorical ‘can of worms’ referred to in the paper's title implicitly acknowledged the form of the supposed fossilised microscopic bacteria found on the Martian meteorite, morphology that was seen as inconclusive from the outset by other scientists in the field.49 Pillinger’s ensuing idea, and what became the sole focus of the rest of his career, was to secure funding for, design and project-manage a British Mars lander that would look for signs of life on the Red Planet.

British involvement in space science at this time had been dependent on securing payload space aboard European and American rockets, with UK

agencies eligible to tender for inclusion in the scientific missions of the European Space Agency (ESA). Seeking to take advantage of the anticipated opposition of Mars in 2003, whereby Mars and Earth would be relatively close to one another, ESA started working on the Mars Express mission in 1997. Its primary objective was to establish a Mars-orbiting spacecraft that would analyse the Red Planet remotely, with the possibility of also deploying a lander to the surface. Beagle 2 was proposed to fulfil this secondary objective, to follow in a history of Mars landers that started in the 1970s with the Soviet Union’s Mars probes and NASA's Viking programme, and continued with NASA’s successful Pathfinder probe in 1997.50 In the midst of Beagle 2’s uncertain development. Pillinger led a variety of fundraising efforts focussed on UK government science programmes as well as private finance initiatives. In doing this, Pillinger co-operated closely with national media outlets, also working with the advertising giant M&C Saatchi. As one commentator put it, ‘he assiduously pressed all the old cultural buttons’ as part of his efforts to enrol the British public in Beagle 2’s anticipated success.51

Pillinger’s attitude to promoting Beagle 2 was connected inherently to his own personal ethos of science communication, by which he understood that ‘if you want the public to take an interest, then you have to let them join in the excitement’.52 Here, the feeling of excitement became central to the popular affective nationalism through which Beagle 2 was imagined and promoted, spliced with nostalgia for Britain’s imagined past. Hence, Pillinger corralled an imagined nationwide community through a series of media engagements and cultural endorsements in his attempts to shape the public narrative of Beagle 2, with the steadfast support of his wife Judith. Perhaps the foremost of these strategies was the naming of the lander itself, which was one of Judith Pillinger’s ideas. Reacting to initial suggestions for names during a journey back home from an ESA meeting in Paris, Colin quotes Judith as saying;

If it’s going to be British then it ought to be Darwin, not Pasteur.53

The chosen name ‘Beagle 2’ implied a genealogy that aligned the space probe with Charles Darwin’s 1831-36 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, from which he amassed evidence to support the theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed. Pillinger hoped that Beagle 2, by finding evidence of life on Mars, would propel evolutionary biology into a new era. At the same time, the interplanetary journey of Beagle 2 would mimic the historic voyage of HMS Beagle, drawing upon the symbolic interface between outer space and the seas that has long characterised narratives of space exploration. All things considered, it was clear that the story of Beagle 2, and its wider cultural and political framing in accounts such as Pillinger’s Beagle 2 Diaries, would come to define the mission. Such frameworks have been common in maritime history, with records such as official hydrographical reports inscribing

Space exploration, science and nationalism 147 their subjects as ‘products of national and imperial enterprise’ in narratives of exploration and adventure, traits that can also be identified in the narration of Beagle 2.54

The invocation of HMS Beagle brought to mind a time in which British imperial networks and associated global naval dominance, particularly over the French, fostered scientific developments and enabled new discoveries in the natural realm. While enrolling the expansionist language of global exploration, Beagle 2 also invoked nostalgia for the scientific achievements of the imperial age. To this effect, comparative features of HMS Beagle and Beagle 2 were put on public display in an exhibition at London’s National Maritime Museum in December 2002, with an associated book also released.55 The exhibition showcased artefacts from Darwin’s voyage, including biological specimens and scientific instruments, alongside animations of Beagle 2’s journey to Mars, and its design plans. The accompanying press release quoted the museum’s director Roy Clare reflecting on ‘the tradition of heroic exploration, once by sea and now manifest in space’.56 Further comparisons were made between the two Beagles, from the careful allocation of space on board the vessels, to the types of instrument designed to measure geochemical, atmospheric and mineralogical qualities at their corresponding destinations. Both were said to represent the ‘state-of-the-art in exploration for their respective generations, leading the way in science and technology, to say nothing of adventure’, hinting at a broader appeal beyond the purely scientific.57

The narration of Beagle 2 sought to trace the lineage not just of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, but also the several other HMS Beagle vessels that have been named by the Royal Navy, from the first in 1766 to the ninth in 1967. Together, these ships established a naval heritage that spanned conflicts including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and the Second World War, during which the eighth HMS Beagle patrolled the Dover straits, took part in the invasion of North Africa, and ‘was involved in freeing the Channel Islands’.58 It is clear that, along with establishing a genealogy of scientific exploration associated with the name Beagle, Pillinger was seeking to register stories of British military triumph, assigning Beagle 2 as the plucky underdog, the adventurous explorer, and as harbinger of a glorious victory. This attitude of British pre-eminence is encapsulated by Pillinger’s comment that, even though he ‘counted thirteen countries contributing’ to the endeavour, and notwithstanding its complete reliance on the ESA launcher and Mars Express, Beagle 2 ‘is a quintessentially British project’.59

As well as looking to past triumphs of British science and exploration to shape the narrative of Beagle 2, Pillinger and his team sought to engage with contemporary popular culture icons that were associated with the emerging ‘Britpop’ oeuvre. By the late 1990s. a resurgence of interest in British pop music, that itself referenced the cultural heyday of the 1960s, emerged alongside the ‘Young British Artists’ group including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, who headlined the renowned ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal

Academy of Arts in 1997. Combined with the landslide election of the 'New Labour’ government under Tony Blair, there was a sense in which politics, art and culture were engaging confidently with aspects of Britishness in a way that had not been witnessed in recent history.60 Looking more carefully, however, some critics have commented on the ways in which British national identity in this period was in fact fragmenting, highlighting the smaller-scale nationalisms that fed into independence and devolution movements among the different nations of the United Kingdom.61 As such, any re-emergence of ‘Britishness’ in national culture could be seen as Englishness in disguise, having more in common with English cultural traditions than with any unifying concept of British national identity.62 There is also a sense in which, in an era of cultural fragmentation, movements like Britpop represented ‘a nostalgic turn to the past - as a harking back to a Britain that has been lost’, an ultimately superficial engagement with national culture.63

Nevertheless, the Zeitgeist of the era was manifested in the actual design of Beagle 2, with artwork by Damien Hirst and a musical composition by the rock band Blur incorporated into the lander’s hardware and software. These connections were established when Blur’s drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James contacted Pillinger with the idea to incorporate a short musical refrain into Beagle 2’s digital call sign, to be transmitted once it had successfully landed on the Martian surface. Rowntree commented at the time that ‘Martian bacteria love Britpop’, encapsulating the upbeat irreverence of the era, or perhaps its meaninglessness.64 Rowntree and James later introduced Pillinger to Damien Hirst, who in consultation with Beagle 2 scientists, created a special version of one of his well-known 'spot paintings’ to be incorporated into the spacecraft’s structure. According to Pillinger. the artwork ‘fitted all the criteria, while fulfilling an essential scientific need’, which was to help calibrate on-board spectroscopic instruments following the spacecraft’s turbulent descent to the Martian surface.65 It consisted of a selection of pigments set into a space-qualified aluminium framework, including hues of yellow and red that were expected to match the colours of the Martian environment, as well as white, black, blue and green, the latter representing Planet Earth. In a reciprocal act, both Blur and Damien Hirst produced independent works named ‘Beagle 2’ - the former a B-side track from the 1999 single ‘No Distance Left to Run’, the latter another variation of the artist’s spot paintings. In these designs, and the publicity that came with them, Beagle 2 had become fully incorporated into millennium-era British popular culture.

It might be assumed that Blur and Hirst’s compositions for Beagle 2 acted primarily as technical elements in the lander’s series of operational procedures. However, the calibration target notably was ‘explicitly staged as a piece of art’, including in an exhibition at London’s White Cube gallery prior to the launch, while Blur’s digital call sign has been described as no more than ‘a marketing strategy to attract the attention of mass media and thus possible public and private sponsorship’.66 Art and music were not

Space exploration, science and nationalism 149 necessary to the mission’s technical operations, but were important in getting Beagle 2 off the ground by using cultural capital as part of the appeal to public and private funding bodies. For one critic, this relationship ‘exposes a sincere lack of metaphysical beliefs beyond a capitalist consumerism which recycles and re-exploits historical fetishes and icons’.67 Here, the science of space exploration is seen to have incorporated creative products as part of a consumerist agenda, resonating with some critiques of millennium-era popular culture as being superficial in nature and constitutive of a postmodern re-hashing of past cultural identifiers. This feeling was captured in a satirical cartoon by Andrew Birch as part of his ‘Young British Artists’ series, that imagined Martian art critics reacting to the Beagle 2 lander (Fig. 7.3).

Beagle 2’s mission culminated in its landing on Christmas Day 2003. As Pillinger recounted, ‘whilst homes all over Britain were listening to Her Majesty, we were straining electronic ears for signs of a missing dog’.68 In this way, a further attachment to the British national psyche was established with the alignment of the landing event with the Queen’s annual televised address to the nation. When the call sign failed to materialise, doubts began to surface as to the mission’s success, and after several further opportunities to detect Beagle 2 in early 2004 had also passed, a joint UK.-ESA commission of inquiry was set up to establish what went wrong. The report uncovered a series of management and technical shortcomings, with inadequate safeguarding and testing measures likely to have resulted in the failure of some of Beagle 2’s landing mechanisms, potentially the airbags, the parachute, or electronic components. Moreover, the report stated that ‘Mars

Andrew Birch ‘Young British Artists’ cartoon from 2002 featuring the Beagle 2 lander

Figure 7.3 Andrew Birch ‘Young British Artists’ cartoon from 2002 featuring the Beagle 2 lander

Source Credit: Private Eye and Andrew Birch

Express and Beagle 2 should have been managed as an integrated mission’, rather than allowing Beagle 2 to proceed with its ‘unconventional’ management arrangements.69 Notwithstanding these valid criticisms, conventionality certainly wasn’t a prime characteristic of Beagle 2, and perhaps the spacecraft would not have reached Mars at all without some of the maverick qualities of Pillinger himself.

It is fair to say that the relationship between ESA and Beagle 2 came to represent a broader set of cultural and political tensions between the UK and continental Europe. Indeed, there is a sense in Pillinger’s writings that ‘Europe’, or at least the European Space Agency, was an interfering presence, wanting to ‘raise as many obstacles to Beagle 2 as they could’, and his post-hoc accounts certainly involve an element of righteous score-settling.70 Pillinger’s strategy seems to have been to overcome what he saw as stifling European bureaucracy through deploying the ‘best of British’ endeavour, from Darwin to Britpop. Here is a sense in which nationalism can emerge in a reactionary manner, conserving selected traditions of a nation in opposition to a form of internationalism that is seen as threatening and all-consuming. We can also understand Beagle 2 in association with what has been described as an ‘aura of nationalism’, incorporating broader affective resonances, cultural narratives and imagined national communities, not just flag-waving and pictorial symbolism.71 Indeed, while Beagle 2 may have failed scientifically, it did succeed in raising the profile of British space science in the new millennium.

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