Still, in two short months, ESA directors will have to explain the very public failure of the landing as they discuss the future of the 2020 mission at this year’s ministerial council. Technologically, there should be no problem. Although investigations are still under way, so far all signs point to the failure being something that will be relatively quick and easy to put right. But politically, there is danger. The mission still needs around another €300 million (US$326 million) from the public purse.
At least publicly, Wörner is stubbornly optimistic about how little effect the crash could have on ministers’ willingness to stump up the cash. Asked about this at a press briefing, Wörner said he saw no reason for ministers to view the 2016 mission as any less of a success than he does. Behind the scenes, however, scientists are more nervous. With austerity continuing to reign across Europe, politicians may be wary of committing millions more to a venture whose risk seems to have shot up.
But ministers would be wrong to hesitate. Not only because experience from Schiaparelli’s crash will aid the ExoMars 2020 landing, but because in something as absurdly hard as space exploration, failure goes hand in hand with progress. ESA’s recent string of successes — including the pioneering Rosetta comet mission and a prototype gravitational-wave detector, the LISA pathfinder — may have made such feats look easy, but about half of attempts to land on Mars fail, and the margin between failure and success can be miniscule.
So far, only NASA has successfully landed and operated on Mars (the Soviet probe Mars 3 reached the surface in 1971, but transmitted for only 20 seconds). Although Schiaparelli’s failure means that Europe can’t yet claim to have joined NASA in the big leagues, without missions such as ExoMars 2020, it never will. ESA has a budget less than one-third the size of NASA’s, but its ambitions are growing, and the European population is no less hungry for science and exploration than is its US counterpart. Failure should not be a reason to draw back, but an impetus to push forward.