ESA Director-General warns Europe not to rely on GPS

February 25, 2002

Brussels, 22 February 2002

The Director-General of the European space agency (ESA), Antonio Rodotà, has warned that Europe may not be able to rely forever on the American GPS satellite navigation system.

In an exclusive interview with CORDIS News on 14 February, Mr Rodotà said Europe must develop an independent system of satellite navigation as it cannot depend on 'endless' use of the USA's GPS system. Mr Rodotà said that if the USA faces problems elsewhere in the world, it could deny Europe full use of the US system. He added that the USA is already beginning to re-think the way the International Space Station (ISS) is divided up as a result of overspend on the project, and warned that 'this could happen also to GPS.'

Galileo, the EU's satellite navigation programme, represents a new phase in European space development, according to Mr Rodotà, as for the first time the EU has come together to build a 'unique infrastructure for the benefit of all Europeans.' He contrasted the project with Europe's railway infrastructure, which is common to the whole of Europe but owned by individual nations.

Asked what his message would be to those Member States that are holding up the Galileo project through their reluctance to commit to funding, Mr Rodotà compared the investment needed for the project with that poured into Europe's road infrastructure. 'How many kilometres of highway is Galileo?' he asked. 'Not very many.'

The benefits of Galileo will not be restricted to financial profits, said Mr Rodotà, explaining that while 'the real revenues of Galileo may not be very large,' it will bring huge savings in key areas of Europe's infrastructure such as air traffic control.

Although some MEPs have called for a withdrawal of the private sector from the joint undertaking which will head development of the initiative, Mr Rodotà said the priority must be to get the project off the ground. 'I'm open to any solution,' he said, adding that a balance must be found between public and private interests. He conceded that more time is needed to address the political considerations linked to the Galileo project,

Greater operational and institutional cooperation between ESA and the European Commission will benefit European citizens, according to Mr Rodotà, by strengthening focus on services provided by space applications. He highlighted the collaborative ESA-Commission GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) project, which he said will bring a 'better life' to the people of Europe. The initiative will create potential for a number of additional services such as providing information to farmers on crop growth and fertiliser use to enable them to handle their territory in a more efficient way.

Closer ties with the Commission are also likely to lead to a boost in funding for ESA. Funding in this area has increased over the decades as the Commission is increasingly recognising the value of investment in space research and applications in solving real problems of the Community.

The use of Europe's space capacity for defence purposes is 'a difficult point for Europe' Mr Rodotà says, as the EU does not have a unified defence policy. However, many of the civil applications which have emerged from US space technology originated in research for military purposes, and there is 'less coherence between the two areas' in Europe, he added. While he doesn't feel there is a need for a huge increase in spending on space projects with military applications, Europe must increase its 'capacity to give a warning - to spot disasters and coordinate a response to them.'

The flexibility of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) plays a key role in the development of European space technology and space technology transfer, and ESA has mechanisms in place to support their role in this process, according to Mr Rodotà. When the agency places a contract with a prime contractor, ESA also plays a role in the selection of sub-contractors in order to ensure fairness between the main contractor and small and medium contractors. ESA has also set a number of specific targets to guarantee SME involvement in individual programmes, for example through setting a certain percentage of contracts which must go to small companies.

Later this year, the agency is also planning to launch an incubator scheme targeted at space technologies for civil applications, which would provide free ESA expertise and advice to help move space technology to a new market.

Mr Rodotà also said more work is needed to change the public perception of space and its value, which he said is still rooted in images portrayed in Hollywood films such as Apollo 13. 'This is one of the main problems we have,' he admitted. 'If you ask anybody in the street about space, the reaction is NASA.'

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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