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

Photo: Getty/New Statesman
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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

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