Fogland Lighthouse – Episode 20: A Letter From Home


Dear Beagle 2,

Whenever I feel lonely, or adrift in the universe, or like there’s no hope, all of which probably happens more than I’d like to admit, I think of you. I think of how immensely unlikely your very existence was. When the first missions to space began there was the star-trek dream of it fostering a new era of peaceful international cooperation. But this gave way to a dick-measuring contest between the two superpowers of America & Russia, two empires that no amount of orbital photography could persuade of just how small a place in the universe they really held. Then a cluster of European nations wedged between these two empires decided they wanted in on the contest as well, and so the European Space Agency was born. At the turn of the third millennium, this Agency set its sights on taking pictures of the next planet over, building a craft called the Mars Express Orbiter for that purpose. Within that cluster of nations was an island, long past its economic and military zenith, that nonetheless managed to persuade the Agency to give over some space on that craft for its own mission-within-a-mission, one that would not just take photos of Mars but land on its surface, and from there search for signs of life. The first, and, to date, last British space expedition. Your expedition.

Beagle 2, your maker, Colin Pillinger, a cattle farmer from Gloucestershire, sporting sideburns and a thick west country accent, didn’t fit the conventional picture of a leading space scientist, but came from a long and proud British tradition of tinkerers, eccentrics, dabblers, chancers and many-pie-fingered enthusiasts, not unlike Charles Darwin, who sailed in the HMS Beagle, the ship that you’re named after. Colin’s mixed backgrounds in astronomy, geology and chemistry all came together to help make you, from your first appearance as a doodle he drew on the back of a beer mat to your finished form. The Agency gave Colin and his team the most restricting parameters imaginable. You would have to be 1 meter wide, weigh only 69 kilos, and the Agency wouldn’t contribute a penny to your construction. Colin got 22 million pounds from the UK government, about 2% of an equivalent NASA mission’s budget. So while the best minds he could gather worked in a garage to fit an entire research station into a probe with the shape and dimensions of a dustbin lid, Colin went out in the world and tried to raise funds and excitement for your mission. This was a time of renewed optimism in the island nation. For all its ideological flaws and lacunas of perception, there was, for the first time in decades, a sense that tomorrow might be better than today, and I can tell you how rare that is for British people. It was the time of britpop and britart, both of which played their part in hyping up your journey. Damien Hirst made a spot-painting that would be used to calibrate your camera. Blur wrote a nine-tone chime that would sound out as your first signal to the universe. This helped Colin bring in another 18 million from private investors, but more than that, it got people around the world emotionally invested in you, rooting for you, hoping you would succeed. You launched in the summer of 2003. The plan was for you to be sent onto Mars’ harsh, dusty surface on Christmas day of the same year, hurtling through the atmosphere at 20,000 kilometers an hour like a dozen manic reindeer. Your heat shield would absorb the thermal shock of entry, then your parachute would deploy, then airbags would inflate to cushion your landing on the flat, arid plains of the Isidis Planitia asteroid crater. Then your four solar panels would unfurl like a fob watch or a flower, and your reassuring melody would be sung over radio waves to the waiting satellites. Then your robotic arm would extend, and a tiny mechanical creature nicknamed the mole, would travel out on a leash of electrical cable, and burrow into the red dirt to pull out samples, which via mass spectrometry could be tested for carbon and atmospheric methane, two reliable chemical indicators of life.

Beagle 2, only you and those possible-but-unlikely Martians know what really happened that day. But no song came on the radio. No signal whatsoever reached our instruments. For over a decade, theories would abound over what went wrong. The Agency would blame Colin for poor management, and Colin would blame the Agency for inadequate support. Many talked of the Martian Curse, aka the Galactic Ghoul, the strange gremlin-like force that has caused more Mars landings to fail than succeed. But no-one could say for certain just where you had gone. Two American Mars rovers would land a few weeks after you, giant, hulking hum-vee like constructions that would roll over the surface transmitting data for years. And most of the world moved on. Then, in 2015, new photos from a NASA Satellite showed the unthinkable. You were there, in the crater. You had landed in one piece. But only 2 of your 4 solar panels were deployed, one of which held the radio.

Beagle, 2, I want you to know I’m so proud of you. Most of us are only running on two out of four solar panels most of the time, and you pulled that shit off after crash-landing on a planet we barely know anything about, on a budget that now would cover less than one episode of a TV show about Lord of The Rings. I hope that some part of you is alive, electrical signals still coursing through some section of your veins. I hope that maybe, even though you can’t send anything, you can still receive. And so I am sending this letter, through my own limited transmission devices of voice and microphone. My hope is that it will end up on the small portion of the internet that uses satellite dishes, and the radio waves from those will go into space, then somehow reach the tiny portion of the Isidis Planitia that you are nestled in, and that you will feel less alone. And one day, long after that, we can bring you home, and hear all the many stories that you’ll no-doubt have to tell. That’s a lot of hopes, nested inside each other like a mole inside a beagle inside a spaceship. But you taught us to hope. To believe that tomorrow could be better than today. That there is a still a future out there, a future filled with the peaceful space exploration of space, one that does not belong to leviathanic government bureaucracies or delusional billionaires, one that belongs to anyone with a dustbin-lid, a garage and a dream, one where, if we truly come to understand our place on this tiny blue dot, we can still go and see what’s out there together.


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