The ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to find life on Mars was one part of a cluster of missions most of which have been very successful. The Beagle 2 project, which was led by Colin Pillinger, failed following the loss of the spacecraft after it was released towards the planet’s surface. The publicity surrounding the project, on the other hand, has been a great success and in terms of communicating the science, as well as generating interest amongst the public, it has been nothing short of a public relations triumph. The person behind the publicity machine was Peter Barratt, who as Head of Communication for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) was drafted in to take charge of the publicity for the project. Here, Nigel Sanitt interviews Peter Barratt during the Royal Society meeting on 8th March.
Pantaneto Forum: When did you come into the project?
Peter Barratt: I guess round about February last year (2003) we, at PPARC were starting to think about it. Because the normal approach we adopt on any space mission, or any PPARC funded international or European project with a big UK involvement, is to hold a press briefing in advance of the launch. This serves as an information forum to get across the UK angle – the UK involvement on missions. Our biggest fear is the UK side gets drowned out by perhaps the European space agency, because they don’t focus in on the national side, or if it is a bilateral project with NASA the American side dominates. We normally have a press briefing a week or two in advance of the launch.
Pantaneto Forum: How was the planning done originally? How did you plan the impact you wanted to make, who was involved?
Peter Barratt: Beagle and Mars Express were always going to be different for us. We initially put our thinking caps on round about last February time. Of course, Colin Pillinger had done an awful lot in advance of that anyway, but we kicked off the programme, really I think it was about April 11th, with a briefing here at the Royal Society, which was purely to get over the UK involvement both on the orbiter and the lander. From the Beagle perspective the briefing reinforced what Colin had been doing from Day 1, but more formally round about July time, Colin approached me directly and said “look this thing is due to separate in September, due to land on Christmas day, would you consider coming on board and managing the media relations aspect to it”. I checked with my superiors if that were a problem, acknowledging in so doing that it would take a lot of my time and a lot of the team’s time and indeed require additional resources.
Pantaneto Forum: So in a sense PPARC were actually contributing you – you were paid by PPARC.
Peter Barratt: Absolutely, we actually went beyond that from a resource point of view because we were anticipating receiving considerable hits on our website. Remember, of course, at that time we were optimistic we were going to have a successful mission. Colin pointed out to me that we were the mirror for the data going out on Beagle and so we put in a more robust infrastructure to our website – PPARC donated that.
Pantaneto Forum: How much did you in the planning work take into account that the project might fail? Did you work out different strategies?
Peter Barratt: No I’ll be honest with you we didn’t. We always went in on the basis that we were going to have a successful mission. At the back of your mind you always try and pre-prepare for what if it doesn’t separate – what are the lines we are going to take then.
Pantaneto Forum: The success of Spirit and Opportunity and the failure of Beagle enhanced each other in the minds of people in this country. It did not have a negative effect.
Peter Barratt: No, not at all. During that Christmas period when we were running the media centre down in Camden. As you know, we would start off in the morning with a thirty minute press briefing that would take us through till about say ten o clock then we went into direct interviews with Colin and the various media people. I used to spend the afternoon literally on the telephone with overseas inquiries giving comments, quotes and in some cases interviews. Invariably all those correspondents would end up by saying well thanks for your time and we wish you tremendous luck. I don’t think I can remember one when it didn’t end up like that.
Pantaneto Forum: Hindsight is a lovely thing but if someone else was doing a big project and they were worried about the publicity, what would you have done differently?
Peter Barratt: I’m not sure that I would. As I said right at the beginning, really all we did at PPARC, what we did on the communication side, is to put in the infrastructure particularly around the Christmas period and manage that on behalf of Colin and the Beagle team. What I liked about it, and we see that even now today is the very open style that Colin has. At all the meetings we’ve ever held, he has been completely open with the media and in terms of giving out the information in real time, at the Christmas briefings, we were getting calls from JPL or from the Odyssey and he would give out that information there and then.
Pantaneto Forum: Speaking to Scientists who are becoming involved with the public you always have the impression beforehand that they want to manage the information. They want to control it and get very upset if it is wrongly reported, whereas for the Beagle mission it’s there in your face.
Peter Barratt: Absolutely. You see the reaction of the scientists, in this case Colin Pillinger, to events as they happen and as he hears the news himself, whether good or bad – and we’ve seen a lot of the latter. I think that’s the real reason that Beagle has created so much interest with the general public, they have seen the person behind it and they have experienced the highs and the lows with us.
Pantaneto Forum: Thank you.