Editorial: Galileo Held Hostage

by

The ongoing impasse over funding for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system is pushing the project’s already-questionable economic viability onto ever shakier ground and likely will force a day of reckoning sooner rather than later.

Certain delegations to the European Space Agency (ESA), Germany in particular, are refusing to pony up their share of a 400 million-euro ($481 million) cost overrun on the project without guarantees that key elements of the Galileo system, such as the satellite control center, will be located within their national borders. As a result, ESA cannot sign the 1.1 billion-euro contract with the Galileo Industries consortium to implement the In-Orbit Validation phase of the project.

The impasse, of course, is nothing new — it has been holding up the contract for the last 10 months. Since December, Galileo Industries has been operating under a 150 million-euro interim contract that was supposed to expire in June but was extended twice, first through Sept. 30 and then through Oct. 31.

With Galileo Industries now warning that the money cannot be stretched further, some industry officials are urging ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain to buy more time by signing another interim contract.

To his credit, Mr. Dordain has refused, and on this he should not waver. ESA’s members have had more than enough time to ponder the pros and cons of participating in the massive industrial and political undertaking that is Galileo. Those who committed to invest did so without guarantees as to their roles in the program, presumably on faith that Galileo as a service would prove an engine for economic growth and thus provide benefits to all.

The principal shareholders in Galileo, including the private-sector consortium to be selected this year to run the project, should be given the leeway to choose a primary ground control center based on the merits of those applying for the job. The job should not be assigned based on a country’s ability to hold the program hostage and thus drive up its cost.

Galileo’s inauguration already has been delayed from 2008 to 2011, and will be pushed back further the longer the impasse remains unresolved. As a result, the system will become more expensive — Germany will be among the first to complain about the bill for the current delay — and even less likely to produce the financial returns upon which it was justified.

It is high time that Germany and any other holdouts step up and demonstrate that Galileo represents more to them than a place to plant the national flag. If they cannot, it is best that they acknowledge that now, and give the other European nations a chance to re-evaluate their participation based on a different set of assumptions.