Professor Colin Pillinger doesn’t like the word failure. He even goes so far as to say it doesn’t exist. At first you might think this is a matter of pride; as a leading planetary scientist, he was the brains and the drive behind Beagle 2, a mission to land a spacecraft on Mars that ended in disappointment when the lander went missing on Christmas Day 2003.
But the more you talk to Pillinger, the more you realise he simply doesn’t have time for failing or not doing or for saying “can’t” or anything that smacks of giving in or giving up. Born in 1943 to the son of a manual worker for the gas board, his is the voice of a post-war generation that was brought up to work hard and never quit.
I ask Colin when he first took an interest in the way things worked. Were there early signs of a scientific mind?
“I was capable of reproducing what other people did. My father used to take me to work with him. He worked with a gang of manual workers and they gave me things to do even though I was very young. I used to test for gas leaks with him. I’m very good at thinking to myself, ‘I could do that!’”
Is that a family trait?
“I don’t know if it’s a family trait, it’s definitely a “my” trait. I’ve been described as the only member of the Royal Society who could plaster a ceiling. I can wire a house. I can build walls.”
These are very practical skills for a man who has had an illustrious career in science which began with his analysis on lunar rock from the Apollo 11 mission. He has since received many honours and medals, including a CBE, and even been called a genius. He laughs heartily at the idea of “genius”,
“I like to say I’ve thought of a few original things. The thing I most like about doing research is that for a few minutes, hours, days even, you’re the only person in the world that knows something. If you find something out and you know it and no-one else does, then there’s an immense desire to tell somebody else about it. If you can’t share it with somebody, it’s not really very much use to you, but it’s nice to tell people, ‘I’ve found out so and so, (chuckles) aren’t I clever sort of thing!’”
For all his modesty, Colin’s ability to spot an idea with scientific potential revealed itself early in his career. His took his first job on NASA’s Apollo 11 project in 1968 after the candidate who had been accepted turned it down, saying that, “he couldn’t see it had any long-term career prospects”. Colin, on the other hand, belted through the rest of his Phd in order to get involved as soon as he could,
“I would have done it for nothing. I’d heard about the Apollo programme, I didn’t know very much about it but it was going to be exciting. I have a motto: never, ever find yourself in position of saying, ‘I wish I’d done that’. It might not work out but at least you’ve tried. That was certainly the case with Beagle. We did it. We tried. We got as far as we could, as far as they let us.”
Colin’s extraordinary drive was central to the Mars Express mission that took Beagle 2 up to the red planet, but his wife, Judith, a microbiologist, came up with a name for the lander and the idea of getting artist Damien Hirst involved in the design. Colin describes her as a “genius at PR”. But doesn’t she ever get tired of the word Beagle? Colin puts the question to her. “Frequently!” she replies.
Despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, Pillinger has written his autobiography, My Life on Mars, and is even now involved in many projects, including a European Space Agency scheme to design a spacecract for a future mission. Who does he take inspiration from?
“Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be top of the list. He didn’t just dream about things, he went and did them. A man with much the same traits, who went to the same school as me – Bernard Lovell, of the Jodrell Bank Telescope.”
Colin obviously strongly identifies with these great thinkers who were also eminently practical but how, when he’s looking up at the stars, does he keep his feet on the ground? Colin refers me to his love of the countryside and his dairy farm in Cambridgeshire,
“There is something actually very therapeutic about being in farming. Everything has to be done when it has to be done. It’s no good saying, ‘I’m sorry it’s Christmas morning, I’m not going to feed the cows today’. Being in a space project you have to have the mentality that is able to cope with ‘It’s got to be done now otherwise we won’t do it’. Farming is an amazing thing to keep you focused.”
We talk about his love of the Fens where he lives and its beautiful, vast open skies. Does Colin like the idea of one day standing on Mars and gazing across its uncharted landscape? He laughs again,
“Ah! I tend to do my exploration by proxy.”
It does not surprise me. Colin’s dreams may reach out into the heavens but, in conversation he’s the sort of man you’d expect to meet in a friendly country pub. So, it’s quite in character when I ask what his favourite TV is. Science documentary? Star Trek? Doctor Who?
Find out more about Beagle 2 in The Life Scientific: Colin Pillinger on BBC Radio 4 at 9:00pm on December 27th