Colin Pillinger, CBE, who died earlier this year, was a planetary scientist best known as the instigator behind the Beagle 2 Mars lander project, and a key figure behind the Philae Lander which was (is?) part of the current Rosetta mission to the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Besides his scientific publications he has, including the one at hand, 3 further books to his name.
Beagle (that’s the book) describes the back-story to Beagle 2 (that’s the spacecraft), which flew with the 2003 ESA Mars Express mission, to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003. It was named in honour of the ship, captained by Robert FitzRoy, which took Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830s and led to the writing of On the Origin of Species. Talk about big shoes to fill…
The book was written whilst the mission was on its way to Mars, and the outcome was not known yet...
It starts with a Preface by Colin, giving some background on the conception of the mission, how the name was chosen, and how the book came to be (essentially: there was an exhibition on the topic in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, at which it was suggested that he collect the material and publish it).
This is followed by a page of Acknowledgments - or rather not, as he essentially refuses to make any to avoid the risk of omitting and thus offending someone from the team… I guess that’s one way of dealing with this problem!
The next part of the book is titled On the Origin of Beagle. It expands a bit on the naming story, and introduces the first parallels to HMS Beagle and its famous voyage. Overall this feels like an abstract for the book (no surprise, given the academical background of the author), or a scene-setter.
With Is There Life On Mars we really cut to the chase, though. This chapter tells the history of the various HMS Beagles (there have been several), interspersed with scientific (mainly Astronomy, for some reason) history bits, meteorite discoveries (another area he worked in, incidentally), and contemporary speculation about Life on Mars. This includes, of course both a good amount of detail on the HMS Beagle Darwin travelled on, as well as quite some on the man himself. It’s a rather fascinating overview of how our knowledge of Mars (or, for most of it, what we thought we knew. Thank God this is different now… er...), displaying controversies, hoaxes and ruined reputations with a good amount of glee, I felt. There are loads of colourful personae, scientific (and otherwise) speculation, and background here.
“Until [H.G.] Wells, martian wars were between those who believed in canals and those who did not”.
Next we have the other large chapter, titled A Tale of Two Beagles. This one draws parallels, and points out similarities and connections between the history of Beagle 2, and the historical Beagle and its journeys. Some of those are obvious, some are, er, not so.
One thing I found fascinating was how malleable these ships were - re-fitting, adding of masts etc, this seemed to go much further than I would have expected. Yes, this is a bit tangential, but the layout, shape, and content of the Beagle 2 lander also kept changing substantially, of course.
At the end he suggests St Mars as the patron saint of space researchers, as they are have-nots, are self-sufficient, and in need of forgiveness in failure of expected returns. This was, of course, rather prescient, as the Beagle 2 mission was lost, and the lander failed to make contact. I wonder if he ever felt he maybe should not have written this!
Overall this is a hugely interesting, and very approachable book. It’s full of pictures, diagrams, scans of back-of-napkins calculations and drawings which drove important decisions and design-changes, inserts with further information, funny cartoons about scientists, Mars, mars landers and more. The fact that the mission was not successful (remember the book was written whilst the craft made its way to Mars) doesn’t diminish this at all - if you want that part of the story, too, then I’d suggest you read his later book, My Life on Mars - The Beagle 2 Diaries.
Or get both, they complement nicely, and will keep you entertained, although not for very long, given how readable and enjoyable they are.
More Colin Pillinger
Title: From Darwin’s epic voyage to the British mission to Mars
Author: Colin Pillinger
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.faber.co.uk
Publication Date: 2003
Review Date: 141212
Topic: Space Flight