No prizes for picking the technology story of the year so far – the honour must inevitably go to the Beagle 2; our plucky little space probe now missing in action and believed to be somewhere on Mars, frantically trying to phone home.
To many people this is simply yet another instance of the great British tradition of heroic failures, plucking defeat from the jaws of triumph at the last moment. Fortunately it seems to be part of our national psyche that we never really expect to succeed in such ventures, so we don’t have too much difficulty in coping with the eventual disappointment and frustration.
No doubt there will be a Beagle 2 programme review that will investigate the circumstances of the failure and report back to us with observations and recommendations for the next attempt in another few years.
No doubt, too, that the proponents of the Beagle 3 initiative will reassure us, yet again, that the important thing is to keep trying – a successful project will just be an added bonus. Sooner or later, the law of averages will probably intervene and we must succeed in our aim to put our very own bit of high-tech hardware on the Martian landscape.
Sounds reasonable, I suppose, so long as I don’t have to pay too much for it personally.
It all smacks though of a scientific “bread and circuses” policy – a way of keeping our eggheads in the UK, instead of joining the trans-Atlantic brain drain, although I still can’t quite understand why we don’t just get our Mars project guys to work with their Nasa counterparts and share the experience of a consolidated programme, rather than pursuing our own ambitions on a shoe-string.
After all, while we have been desperately scouring the airwaves for the slightest signs of life from Beagle 2 to reach Jodrell Bank, the US has delivered its own robot onto the red planet and subsequently received not only plaintive messages from Spirit to Mars but also some cracking snapshots for the next Nasa newsletter.
It’s a great pity that we didn’t combine our Beagle 2 mission with the concurrent Nasa initiative. I am sure that the so-called "special relationship" between the US and the UK could extend beyond the boundaries of military excursions into the realms of space technology, for mutual benefit and cost-saving.
Instead, like so many of our technology projects, we seem to positively revel in regularly reinventing wheels. If I had a pound for every time I have found IT departments reinventing bespoke solutions for standard technology, then I probably could fund the Beagle 3 programme out of my loose change.
This has led me to believe that poor old Beagle 2 is not the unwitting victim of another classic British cock-up. No, my friends, Beagle 2 is clearly a casualty of a conspiracy to reinvent wheels at all costs, just like many IT projects.
I may be wrong. We may find in a year or two that a secret Nasa Mars Lander was hidden on a grassy knoll, quietly jamming the signal from Beagle 2. A bizarre theory perhaps, but probably a more plausible prospect than hoping we will ever be honest with ourselves about our cussedly independent approach to technology.
What do you think?
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Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in January 2004