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Society, Politics & Law

Never forget Colin Pillinger

Updated Thursday 29th May 2014

Colin did so much for the UK space industry and, hopefully, we'll soon be launching a mission to Mars from the UK, writes Michael Brooks.

Portrait of Colin Pillinger reaching up into space. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Catherine Pain

“Pillinger, we have a problem.” OK, maybe it doesn’t have the cachet of Houston but it’s a no-brainer. The UK’s spaceport should bear the name of our greatest space champion.

Colin Pillinger of The Open University, who died on the 7th May, must not drift into history. It’s a peculiarly British phenomenon to play down our scientific movers and shakers. The US celebrates its space science heroes – Edwin Hubble, David Wilkinson, James Webb – by naming billions of dollars’ worth of telescopes and probes after them. As the UK becomes an ever bigger player in the new space race, Colin Pillinger’s name should be imprinted permanently on to the British landscape.

Pillinger was best known for his leadership of the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. Usually it is referred to as “the failed mission to Mars” but it failed only in some respects. That it came so close to succeeding – it went from conception to design to construction to launch and almost to Mars – was in its own right an enormous success. The first Soviet, American and Chinese missions to Mars all failed, too.

Pillinger negotiated with governments, businessmen, artists, musicians and senior scientists to pull the project together for a paltry £25m. And all was not lost when (as far as we know) Beagle 2 careened into the surface of Mars. The UK is still benefiting from technologies developed for that mission. Pillinger was tough-headed, passionate, intelligent and far too little celebrated.

The same could be said of the UK space industry. It is worth about £9bn annually to the British economy and is second to none in terms of its technological abilities and facilities. The government’s plan to open a spaceport on these shores will be a boost to that industry, bringing it out of the shadows and into the public consciousness.

Being British, I find it hard to imagine a UK spaceport: the notion conjures up images of the seedy Mos Eisley in Star Wars, rather than the sleek departure points in the latest Star Trek movies. The world’s launch facilities are usually in exotic locations: the austere ex-Soviet glamour of Baikonur, sun-kissed Florida, the jungles of French Guyana. These are nothing like Grimsby, South Shields or Aberystwyth. But any region should welcome the spaceport: it would bring jobs and investment.

The chance to watch as rockets (and, perhaps, shuttles) launch into space will inspire a new generation to think big about their place and role in the universe. A direct connection with outer space is always a boon, whether we are looking to produce artists such as Damien Hirst or the musicians of Blur (whom Pillinger persuaded to contribute to the Beagle 2 mission) or simply more scientists and engineers.

There is competition for a northern European launch site. The Spaceport Sweden initiative has its eye on Kiruna in Lapland. Sweden’s northernmost town is already home to the state-owned Esrange Space Centre, which hosts a clutch of scientific projects and basic rocket-launching facilities.

The big prize is surely a contract with Virgin Galactic, the UK company believed most likely to be the first to get space tourism off the ground. Though it is based in the Mojave Desert to the north of Los Angeles, a European departure port will eventually become desirable. For the UK to miss out on this opportunity would be unconscionable. You can already hear the dinner-table conversations, can’t you? 'Where are you flying from?' 'Oh, Pillinger – of course.' Welcome to the future.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman on the 15th May and is reproduced here with kind permission.

About Professor Colin Pillinger

He was a Professor of Planetary Sciences and Founder of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute (PSSRI) at The Open University.

After gaining a PhD in chemistry from the University of Swansea, Colin Pillinger was a research fellow at Cambridge University and then at The Open University, before becoming Professor in Interplanetary Science at The Open University in 1991. He was awarded the CBE in 2003. In 2011 he was awarded the prestigious Michael Faraday Prize.

Unusually among academics Pillinger understood that promoting science demanded a degree of showmanship and a willingness to engage with popular culture. To demonstrate how small Beagle 2 was he loaded a replica into a supermarket trolley and wheeled it through the car park of The Open University. The footage was shown on Have I Got News For You where it was seen by millions.

Asteroid 15614 is named Pillinger.

Further reading

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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