Davos Newbies Home

Holiday intermission 

I haven’t a clue how often I’ll be switching on the computer over the next week or so. This is a time for family and friends, not (for the most part) retreating to the office to tap away. I hope all my readers have a happy holiday season and continue to fight the good fight in the new year.

Optimism 

The most exciting thing I’ve read today is an article in the Financial Times about Beagle 2, the Mars lander that successfully detached from its mother ship today (inevitably, it’s behind a subscriber firewall). Beagle 2 should land on Mars early on Christmas, if everything goes smoothly.

It describes how the dire financial straits of British space science provoked many of the qualities of Beagle 2. “Mission constraints forced Beagle to be groundbreaking. It had to be as cheap as possible and ended up costing about £50m ($87m), excluding its instruments, which were supplied by the universities involved. It went about £1m over its industrial budget of £40m (set by Astrium) but was still ‘very fast and pretty cost-effective’, says Barrie Kirk, project manager. More significantly, with a total mass of only 33.2kg Beagle is the lightest lander ever built and has the highest ratio of experimentation to mass ever achieved in space.”

I heard professor Colin Pillinger, who leads the Beagle 2 team, on the radio today. He had a good line: “The score’s 1-0 after the first leg. We play the second leg on Christmas day.” (Ask followers of European football for an explanation.)

It all sounds like a triumph for that peculiarly British genius for creating good science and engineering on next to no resources. I’m looking forward to reading Francis Spufford’s The Backroom Boys which is all about the boffins.

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