Editorial: Facing Reality on Galileo

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The European Commission pulled no punches in its recent assessment of the long-delayed and overbudget Galileo satellite navigation system, saying the 30-satellite constellation will cost a lot more and take far longer to fully deploy than the latest official projections state. Operating, maintaining and replenishing the fleet will drive program costs still higher, the report said, adding that Galileo services will never generate the kind of revenue envisioned when the system was approved.

The report essentially said what most people familiar with the program probably have long known — or at least suspected — but were reticent to publicly acknowledge; it was surprising only, perhaps, in its candor.

Ignoring the elephant in the room is hardly unusual on space development programs: Just last year, for example, an independent review of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope uncovered a looming delay and cost growth that program managers somehow couldn’t see or simply wouldn’t acknowledge.

It’s not difficult to understand why scenarios like these unfold over and over again in government space development: Bad news is viewed as a threat to funding; withholding this information keeps the cash flowing until the investment simply becomes too great to abandon, even after the budgetary realities eventually force their way to the surface. This strategy — for lack of a better word — helps keep programs alive but invariably exacerbates cost-growth problems.

With no additional cash forthcoming before the European Union’s next seven-year budget cycle begins in 2014, the Galileo program is facing a costly production break between the first bulk-production batch of 14 satellites, already under contract, and the second. Meanwhile, industry officials are wondering how they will keep their competing Galileo teams together while awaiting the contract award for the remaining satellites.

Canceling the program at this stage, with four initial validation satellites nearing completion and billions of euros already invested in research and development, is in all likelihood a nonstarter. But the European Commission still faces some tough choices. One, obviously, is to stay the course, which means the European Union’s 27 member governments, many of which are under severe financial strain, must commit a lot more money than previously anticipated for a system that won’t be fully operational before 2020 — seven years behind the most recent official schedule — and which will not deliver the revenue once seen as a way to help offset its cost.

Under the circumstances, alternatives should at least be considered. The commission could, for example, delay the launch of the first 18 Galileo satellites — or perhaps the 14 recently put under contract — so as to begin Galileo service with a full rather than a partial constellation providing only limited service. But some officials worry that this option would sap the momentum the program has built up in the past few years, causing Europe to fall hopelessly behind Russia and perhaps China in what some see as a race to be the second major provider of global satellite navigation services behind the United States with its GPS constellation.

The European Commission also could halt Galileo’s deployment at 18 satellites, launching additional platforms only as needed for replenishment. This would require Europe to forge an agreement to integrate Galileo as closely as technically and politically possible with GPS and perhaps also with Russia’s Glonass system to provide the full range of positioning and navigation services. Galileo would, in essence, become part of an international global satellite navigation system.

Partnering with the United States or Russia would strengthen Europe’s hand as it seeks to negotiate an interoperability agreement with China, which is moving ahead with a satellite navigation system whose military signal will be broadcast in the same frequencies as those planned for Galileo’s military code, called Public Regulated Service. Europe hopes to persuade China to broadcast in a different frequency so that either side can jam the other’s signal during a war or other crisis without jamming its own. Two years of negotiations on such a deal have proved fruitless.

While it would no doubt be very unpopular with Europe’s space industry, forgoing a 30-satellite Galileo constellation would be consistent with the idea, which is getting increased attention in these shaky economic times, that countries could get more out of their space budgets by working together and avoiding duplication to the extent possible.

The central premise that has always undergirded Galileo is that Europe for strategic reasons needs an independent global satellite navigation system. But cost is often a key determinant of strategic priorities. Armed with new and publicly available information about just what it will take to fully deploy Galileo, the European Commission has an opportunity to re-examine that premise. Should the commission find that it remains valid, European Union members must be prepared to pony up accordingly.