When a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket crashed off the coast of French Guiana in December, it seemed to symbolize the current state of Europe's space ambitions. While Europe continues to pursue Mars missions and a bold attempt to land on a comet, the future of Europe's high-tech industries depends, European leaders maintain, on another big scheme: the development of a global satellite-positioning system (GPS), which will allow a person's whereabouts to be pinpointed within a few meters. The U.S. has already built a GPS system. But the ESA says it needs its own for commercial reasons, so it is building a competing €3.2 billion project called Galileo. If Galileo is any gauge, getting a European satellite system in place isn't just rocket science: it's a lot harder than that.
Europe's approach to space has been fragmented. The ESA, founded in 1975, is a strange beast: it does not have the same membership as the European Union and operates independently from the European Commission. Critics complain that its contract awards favor national priorities over the interests of Europe as a whole.
Galileo, the first project to ever bring together ESA and the European Commission, was first proposed in 1994. But ESA has not finalized its commitment to invest €550 million, because its members are locked in battle over who should lead the project, and who therefore rakes in the majority of the contracts for their own national businesses. The funding deadline passed at the end of 2002, and Galileo now risks losing the matching funds proposed by the Commission.
Even if that money materializes, no one knows where the other $2 billion will come from. Options include taking money from the Chinese government in exchange for stakes in the project. There are also talks of partnering with the Russians, who would bring technological expertise. Neither would please the U.S., which has longstanding military objections to Galileo.
European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin hopes to apply radical surgery; he's lobbying the European Convention on the future of Europe to give the Commission new powers to craft a cohesive policy, rather than leaving all power to national governments. Busquin is also drafting a policy paper, which will attempt to solve the political and economic hurdles of a common approach to space. For the moment, though, Europe's hopes for Galileo and future common projects look as broken as that Ariane 5 rocket.