Colin Pillinger dies: five facts about the Beagle 2 scientist

May 8, 2014

Pillinger was a real-life rocket scientist, but he also milked cows and performed on Top of the Pops


BRITISH scientist Colin Pillinger – best known for attempting to land a spacecraft on Mars on Christmas Day in 2003 – has died at the age of 70 after suffering a brain haemorrhage. Beagle 2, named after the ship that took Charles Darwin round the world, disappointingly vanished before it could land on Mars, but Pillinger continued to push for better exploration of the Red Planet.

He worked as a professor in interplanetary science at the Open University, where he headed the Department of Physical Sciences until 2005. He leaves behind his wife Judith and two children, Shusanah and Nicolas, who have described his death as “devastating and unbelievable”. Here are five facts you might not know about Pillinger, also known for his distinctive mutton-chop sideburns...

He owned a dairy farm
Pillinger once said he was able to think the hardest when he was milking the cows on his dairy farm. However, he was unable to carry out physical work after being diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in May 2005. He told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs that he had decided as a young boy to make the most of each day and not to stay in bed in the mornings. “I got up at six o'clock because there was no time to waste. I didn't really want to be here on earth and think ‘Gosh, I spent most it sleeping.’”

He was a ‘disaster’ science student
Pillinger was awarded a CBE for services to higher education and science in 2003, but he admitted that he was a “disaster as a science student”. He told The Observer: “Every time I mixed two solutions together, the results blew up and ended up all over the ceiling.” It was when he discovered he could do chemistry with instruments rather than by hand in his final year at Swansea University that he says he found his vocation.

He arranged flowers to raise money for Beagle
The Beagle 2 mission cost a mere £44m compared to the £1.6bn Mars Curiosity Rover mission, launched by Nasa in 2011. But Pillinger had to raise much of the cash himself. His fund-raising efforts included giving talks to the royal family, organising drinks receptions for aerospace bosses and even arranging displays at the Chelsea Flower Show. “There was nothing I wouldn’t have done to raise money for Beagle,” he told the Observer.

He was on Top of the Pops
Indie band Blur also helped to promote the Beagle project. They wrote a song – based on a mathematical sequence – intended to work as a signal to tell Pillinger’s team that Beagle had landed safely. A lesser known fact is that Pillinger – a friend of Blur’s Alex James and the actor Keith Allen who formed the band Fat Les – was drafted in to play a drum on Jerusalem, the 2000 England football song. Pillinger performed on Top of the Pops, where Fat Les broke the record for having the most people on the show’s stage, before the stage itself buckled under the weight of the crowd. 

He burnt out a Nissan on Top Gear
Pillinger was praised by Jeremy Clarkson when he took part in Top Gear’s ‘Boffin Burn-out’ in 2003. He was challenged to burn rubber in a Nissan 300ZX, by revving the engine and keeping his foot on the brake to produce as much smoke as he could. Pillinger won the competition, beating ‘the father of bio-engineering’ Heinz Wolff and British art critic Brian Sewell. Clarkson described his performance as “magnificent”.

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