Beagle - from sailing ship to Mars spacecraft
Author: Colin Pillinger
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The name Beagle 2 was chosen for the spacecraft which carries Britain’s hopes to discover life on Mars by my wife Judith during a journey back from Paris in April 1997. I had just attended the European Space Agency’s meeting to discuss the possibility of a mission to the red planet called Mars Express and had suggested the project should include a lander.
Who would pay for the martian lander and who would develop it? It was pretty clear that ESA did not have the resources. HMS Beagle was the ship that had taken Charles Darwin around the world and lead to his writing On the Origin of Species; If I was going to raise the funds from sources other than the usual ones we realised we would need a name that was instantly recognisable. Her voyage led to the discovery of the secret of life on Earth, could we do the same for Mars? We decided then and there to honour the ship, the vehicle which made Darwin’s contributions possible. So Beagle it would be for the spacecraft.
It was not until later in September of that year, whilst preparing for a presentation to ESA, outlining the evolving Beagle 2 lander project, that I first pointed out the similarities between our situation and the opposition that Darwin initially faced from his father. I also informed the audience that financing the voyage of HMS Beagle had not been all plain sailing either as Captain FitzRoy knew to his cost.
As the Beagle 2 project progressed more and more analogies with HMS Beagle were found until the point where it was recognised that there was a great opportunity for an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. As preparations went ahead it became obvious that far more material was available than there was room for. The exhibition evolved into a book and here is the product – the story of how it has come to pass that Beagle 2 is going to Mars juxtaposed against a nautical history of the name. It is quite remarkable how little has changed, in terms of exploring a planet, whether it be Earth or Mars in 170 odd years.
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