Colin Pillinger, who died on 7 May, must not drift into history. Photo: Getty
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Never forget Colin Pillinger – and all he did for the UK space industry

Hopefully, we'll soon be launching a mission to Mars from the UK.

“Pillinger, we have a problem.” OK, maybe it doesn’t have the cachet of Houston but it’s a no-brainer. The UK’s spaceport should bear the name of our greatest space champion.

Colin Pillinger, who died on 7 May, must not drift into history. It’s a peculiarly British phenomenon to play down our scientific movers and shakers. The US celebrates its space science heroes – Edwin Hubble, David Wilkinson, James Webb – by naming billions of dollars’ worth of telescopes and probes after them. As the UK becomes an ever bigger player in the new space race, Colin Pillinger’s name should be imprinted permanently on to the British landscape.

Pillinger was best known for his leadership of the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. Usually it is referred to as “the failed mission to Mars” but it failed only in some respects. That it came so close to succeeding – it went from conception to design to construction to launch and almost to Mars – was in its own right an enormous success. The first Soviet, American and Chinese missions to Mars all failed, too.

Pillinger negotiated with governments, businessmen, artists, musicians and senior scientists to pull the project together for a paltry £25m. And all was not lost when (as far as we know) Beagle 2 careened into the surface of Mars. The UK is still benefiting from technologies developed for that mission. Pillinger was tough-headed, passionate, intelligent and far too little celebrated.

The same could be said of the UK space industry. It is worth about £9bn annually to the British economy and is second to none in terms of its technological abilities and facilities. The government’s plan to open a spaceport on these shores will be a boost to that industry, bringing it out of the shadows and into the public consciousness.

Being British, I find it hard to imagine a UK spaceport: the notion conjures up images of the seedy Mos Eisley in Star Wars, rather than the sleek departure points in the latest Star Trek movies. The world’s launch facilities are usually in exotic locations: the austere ex-Soviet glamour of Baikonur, sun-kissed Florida, the jungles of French Guyana. These are nothing like Grimsby, South Shields or Aberystwyth. But any region should welcome the spaceport: it would bring jobs and investment.

The chance to watch as rockets (and, perhaps, shuttles) launch into space will inspire a new generation to think big about their place and role in the universe. A direct connection with outer space is always a boon, whether we are looking to produce artists such as Damien Hirst or the musicians of Blur (whom Pillinger persuaded to contribute to the Beagle 2 mission) or simply more scientists and engineers.

There is competition for a northern European launch site. The Spaceport Sweden initiative has its eye on Kiruna in Lapland. Sweden’s northernmost town is already home to the state-owned Esrange Space Centre, which hosts a clutch of scientific projects and basic rocket-launching facilities.

The big prize is surely a contract with Virgin Galactic, the UK company believed most likely to be the first to get space tourism off the ground. Though it is based in the Mojave Desert to the north of Los Angeles, a European departure port will eventually become desirable. For the UK to miss out on this opportunity would be unconscionable. You can already hear the dinner-table conversations, can’t you? Where are you flying from? Oh, Pillinger – of course. Welcome to the future.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Maggie Goldenberger
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Living the Meme: What happened to the Ermahgerd girl?

Four years after going viral, Maggie Goldenberger reveals what it was like for her childhood photo to become a meme.

Maggie Goldenberger is not the Ermahgerd girl, not really. Although she is the star of the four-year-old meme of an awkward tween girl holding up her favourite Goosebumps books, she was actually in costume at the time.

“I was in like sixth grade [year seven] maybe, and I’d always dress up and take photos with my friends,” she says. “I don’t feel that offended by it [becoming a meme] or feel that embarrassed by it, because I was just messing around.”

Now 29, Maggie is video-calling me from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she works as a cardiac nurse. Although she was 11 or 12 in the now internationally famous picture, it only went viral when she was 25 and on a six-month-long travelling trip. The image spread across the internet and was quickly captioned phonetically to imitate a speech impediment, and thus a rhotacised pronunciation of “Oh my God” was born. “Ermahgerd,” an internet user emblazoned the image, “Gersberms!”

If you’re not exactly sure what that means, you’re not alone. Maggie’s mother, although immediately proud of her daughter’s new-found fame, was a little bemused by the internet’s captions. Maggie tells me her mother, “had the picture up in her office and she thought it was hilarious. But she kept telling me like: ‘Maggie! They’re putting all this German writing all over your picture! What’s going on!’

“She didn’t quite understand it but she loved it.”

Like her mother, Maggie didn’t immediately comprehend her new online fame. She is happy to share her story, and laughs about it, but admits she still doesn’t really “get” the meme. “I’m even more confused about it now than I was then,” she says. “I kind of got like the novelty of it and it being fun but I don’t understand how it’s lasted so long.”

It is this confusion that means that Maggie, unlike most of the memes I have spoken to, has not made much money from her viral fame. “It’s hard for me to get behind something that I don’t understand,” she says when I ask if she ever considered releasing merchandise. “Also if I’m gonna make shirts I wanted them to be like fair trade, organic . . . and it just seemed like a lot going on, like the responsibility of it.”

Though Maggie could potentially have made thousands of dollars, not cultivating her online fame means that she is now able to live a relatively normal life. Most people don’t recognise her from the image, although word-of-mouth does mean that sometimes strangers approach her to take a picture. Maggie doesn’t mind this, but she is annoyed when people won’t reveal why they want a picture with her. “Then I’ll just find out a couple weeks into knowing them that they know about [the meme],” she says, “and I’m like, oh, just say it upfront.”

Yet while Maggie has never been embarrassed of Ermahgerd girl, she did get a taste of the darker side of internet fame when her friend’s brother uploaded a more recent photo of her, in a bikini, to Reddit, and revealed in his post that she was lesbian.

“I could finally feel for other people like in those tabloid magazines,” she says. “I thought I was a pretty confident person, not that weird with my body and things, but to have someone put your photo out there without your knowledge and to have people sharing it and making ugly comments . . . it's kind of an ugly world out there.”

Although Maggie did not enjoy being exposed in this way, she says the best thing about becoming a meme was when Vanity Fair wrote a profile on her in 2015. “I was going through a break-up at the time and when it came out I was getting attention for that and it just took away attention from the big break-up, so that was good timing.”

Despite enjoying the renewed attention on that occassion, however, Maggie is generally very grounded, and says she doesn’t normally announce who she is when she meets new people. “I usually try and not say anything,” she says, when I ask if it affects her dating life. “I keep it on the DL.”

 



Via Maggie Goldenberger

In many ways it is fortunate that 29-year-old Maggie is detached enough from her Ermahgerd persona to be able to do this. “I try to feel for others that have their meme go viral and it's their real picture,” she says. “It was kind of weird that people were just making fun of a child without trying to figure out who the child was . . . I just don’t understand why people feel like it’s okay just because it's online and it's a stranger.”

For the future, then, Maggie says she is “still working” on embracing her meme status. She has no plans to cultivate it online or to make any money, and instead intends to do some travel nursing across the United States or potentially abroad. I ask her, if she could have been famous for anything else, instead of this, what would she choose?

“Initially I think like comedy,” she muses. “But then I think I should do something for the greater good.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.