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Europe Aims High

ESA Working To Compete With NASA

So, your toodling along in your space suit, having a great time on your first EVA, when suddenly, incredibly, someone taps you on the shoulder. Recognize that scared, sick, sinking feeling in your stomach?

Pehaps the folks at NASA do. Europe, which has been catching up with -- and in some cases, surpassing -- the US in technology fields, has now set its collective sights on space.

Move Over GPS. Here Comes Galileo

Back in May, the European Space Agency funded a project called "Gallileo." It's the European version of the Global Positioning Satellite System. Made in Europe.

The GPS system was built by the military a quarter-century ago. Its good graces guide pilots to their destinations. Its super-accurate clocks guide banks and big business through complicated financial transactions. But in spite of all that, the GPS system is a military system and some analysts consider it vulnerable.

Gallileo will be run by civilians. It will be tailored to civilian needs. The Europeans say it will cover more territory with greater continuity than GPS.

"The United States could end up ceding leadership in civil navigation to Europe," said Jeffrey Bialos, former head of the U.S. delegation for negotiations on GPS and Galileo and an official at the Pentagon under the Clinton administration, in an interview with Reuters.

Bad Blood

At first glance, the Gallileo system and GPS look a lot alike. In fact, the Defense Department is worried that Gallileo will broadcast on the same frequencies as GPS. The United States has accused Europe of unnecessarily duplicating a system that's already in place and doing just fine, thanks.

But that's not the way Europe sees it. French President Jacques Chirac says European countries would become "vassals" of the United States without their own satellite-based navigation system. There are even concerns that the US could jam GPS signals, a worry that was exacerbated by differences over the war in Iraq.

"The war in Iraq underscored how weak Europe is in using space applications for defense and security purposes," said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, speaking in Paris at the end of June. "We need to give the European Union a high degree of independence in the space arena. The sovereignty of our continent is at stake."

Them's tough words, pardner. While Gallileo is a system built for civilians and manned by civilians, don't kid yourself. There's a military application in there somewhere.

"Galileo is positioned as civilian but could easily evolve to become strategic," said David Braunschvig, a managing director at Lazard in New York and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who co-authored a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine on Galileo and GPS.

Gallileo Is One Thing. There's Much More

Evidence of a general fallout between continents is clear elswhere in the skies above. Germany, unhappy with US-provided satellite imagery during the Kosovo conflict, has decided to build its own system of radar-imaging satellites, one that would compliment a constellation already put in orbit by the French. Earlier this year, EU members promised $1.1 billion to make the Ariane-5 launch system more competitive with those of the United States.

European space initiatives come as China promises to send a man to the moon. The Pentagon is certainly worried. In 2001, the Space Commission, run by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, warned that the United States is open to a "Pearl Harbor" space attack. The Space Commission urged the government to do whatever it takes to stay on top in the race for space.

If this trend continues, we're gonna need a traffic cop up there.

FMI: www.esa.int

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