Europe to Loft Its Own 'Birds' ; It Is Seeking Less Economic and Military Dependence on United States

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At any given moment, dozens of US and Russian navigation satellites whiz by high above the earth, guiding airliners, cars, and backpackers to their destinations.

But the Europeans have no "birds" of their own to navigate by.

Yesterday, leaders of the European Space Agency (ESA) took steps to rectify that - and then some. They decided to build Europe's own constellation of navigation satellites. Today, they expect a go- ahead from the European Union, which is needed for the joint effort to take flight.

The project is part of a major strategy shift, designed to link the 25-year-old space agency more tightly with the Continent's high- tech economic goals. If successful, some analysts say, the change could mark a significant turning point in Europe's post-cold-war quest for tighter political and economic unity and an emerging military independence from the United States.

"The European Union, with ESA as the space-operations arm of the union, could be a very powerful competitor," says Ray Williamson at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

The effort to bring space to earth for Europeans was set out in writing on Nov. 16, when the ESA and the EU published a joint strategy for the Continent's space efforts.

The goal is to increase the ESA's responsiveness to what Jean- Jacques Dordain, ESA director of strategy and technical assessment, calls the "real world."

During a recent interview, he noted that until now, the agency has been concerned primarily with the "space world."

"So far, most of our activities have been pushed by the technology and pushed by engineers in this space world," he says. "Now it is time to reverse that. Our hope is that from now on, it will not be the space world pushing satellites, but society asking for satellites."

The new navigation-satellite project, called Galileo, is scheduled to be fully operational by 2008. And it casts light on some of the motivations behind the new strategy.

One of the main drivers behind setting up a network with the "Made in Europe" label is economic, Mr. Dordain suggests.

For years, Europeans have dominated the commercial launch business, thanks to the Ariane family of rockets. Now, they are looking at its potential markets for satellite-navigation equipment and services - and they see a gold mine. Between 2005 and 2020, the market is estimated to grow to 270 billion euros ($241 billion).

"Are we sure that European entrepreneurs will have access on an equal footing with US investors when the basic infrastructure is American?" he asks.

Despite President Clinton's efforts to ensure access to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), Dordain notes that the satellites are still owned by the Pentagon, suggesting that under some circumstances, access to accurate signals could be cut off. …