Tuesday 30th December 2003
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Out of this world
The Back Half
Alex James
Monday 15th December 2003
Music 2003 - Alex James reports back from his mission to discover life on Mars

I don't know if he recognised me - maybe he did - but I knew who Colin Pillinger was the moment I saw him. I'd seen him talking about meteorites on an Open University programme in the middle of the night. The first thing he said was: "Here's a piece of Mars." He grinned and pulled an object out of his pocket. Just as we tried to get a closer look, he whisked it away and said: "We need to land on Mars in 2003." As far as meetings go, it was easily the best I'd ever been to.

It was the start of a far-fetched movie, with a cast money couldn't buy. Who knows how it's going to end? A couple of weeks earlier, Dave (the drummer in Blur) and I had drunkenly phoned our accountant from a jacuzzi in Los Angeles to say that we wanted to start a space programme. Two meetings later, and we were in Milton Keynes having pieces of Mars waved at us. It was exactly what we had hoped for.

It's staggering what you can get for free when you're in a band - pretty much everything if you're willing to make enough phone calls. Celebrity is marketing's magic elixir, and in the same way that the film industry needs big names to secure financial backing, it helped Colin's cause to attach Blur's name to his mission.

The spacecraft needed a call sign that would give it a unique and tasteful fingerprint to distinguish it from the other space hardware in the local universe. It would be beamed back from the surface of Mars to announce the safe landing. Blur agreed to compose it: "Beagle 2" is a nine-note sequence based loosely on a harmonic series devised by Damon Albarn's dad. But that's a whole other story.

The main problem for science is that people just aren't that interested. Life on Mars - I mean, COME ON! How dead do you have to be not to find that interesting? It's like the Holy Grail of modern science. The future starts when we find life on Mars. I was drawn into an exotic and pleasing new world. I found myself at tea parties at Mansion House; looking at meteorites in the cellar of the Natural History Museum in Kensington; visiting laboratories in Cambridge and holding strange conversations about methane oceans on Saturn's moons.

There was no money, but the lander was taking shape as a Blue Peter-type model made of bog-roll holders and string. We christened it "Beagle 2" after Darwin. There are parallels with the great ocean-going heroes of the past. It took three months to get to Australia 300 years ago, and probably just as much apathy surrounded those voyages of discovery. Space today is like the oceans once were - the edge of the unknown. Exploration requires a long-term investment, but the returns are potentially infinite.

Colin took the bog-roll-and-string model over to Damien Hirst's house. The contraption was the product of the finest minds of about 40 universities. Like Colin, Damien has got people thinking and talking about things in a different way. He got art into the tabloids, led the way, inspired people to be artists. He made art cool, basically. Colin Pillinger could be the man to do all that for science.

Damien was won over, and the model and Colin were sent round to Charles Saatchi, who in turn offered his services. This would be the first privately funded interplanetary journey. It would be financed by selling advertising space on Beagle 2, in the style of Formula One racing. Usually, scientists compete with each other for limited research grants, which makes them bitchy, but Beagle was bootstrapping itself all the way to Mars.

In the current climate of frothy hubble-bubble, watery boy bands and reality TV, here at last is a story for the disaffected: a gallant search for the truth driven by British balls and brilliance.

Meeting innovative people with a completely different way of looking at the world has, for me, been as rewarding as taking part in the project itself. Perhaps Colin's greatest achievement is not that he got as far as Mars, but that he got as wide as science, art and music working together. We're all after the same thing, really - life.

Beagle 2 hits Mars at 2.54am on Christmas Day

"Beagle 2" is an entirely new composition and is one of the tracks on the CD of the third single, "No Distance Left to Run (CD2)", from Blur's platinum-selling album 13

This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.

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