Galileo blasts through launch problems

The first satellites in the EU's navigation system are in orbit, after years of wrangling over cost and security. By Mark Leftly reports

As the rain poured, smoke billowed out of the end of the thin, Russian Soyuz rocket. Within seconds, fire filled the launchpad as the rocket shot into the murky grey sky.

The European Union's 12-year dream of a constellation of satellites that would provide the bloc with an independent navigation system was finally becoming reality. Search-and-rescue missions, transport, healthcare and agriculture are just a handful of the sectors that will benefit from the EU's giant sat-nav, a free service that will tell civilians their location with pinpoint accuracy.

That launch of the first two Galileo satellites – named after the 16th-century Italian astronomer – took place from French Guyana in October, so the first operational services should be available by the end of 2014. That's seven years later than first envisaged, while costs run into the billions of euros.

Throw in a US angered by what it sees as a threat to the dominance and competitiveness of its global positioning system – albeit that it is military focused, while Galileo is primarily for civilian use – and a UK that has been sceptical over the system's budget and subsidies, just getting to that launch looks like quite a feat.

Much of the success is down to Antonio Tajani, the EU's Rome-born Industry Commissioner. Since taking office two years ago, Tajani has worked at cutting Galileo's costs, mitigating delays and smoothing member state tensions, one reason for his whirlwind visit to London last week.

He implemented a review last year that brought down Galileo's installation costs from €1.9bn to under €1.5bn. A further €5.4bn will be required from EU states to cover operational costs after 2014. However, he is insistent that Galileo could boost the bloc's economy by as much as €90bn in its first 20 years.

Flanked by an entourage that would not be out of place on The West Wing, Tajani says: "All the money, all the delays were no good for our image – no good for the citizens, because it's public money. The first task was to reduce the cost. I am optimistic."

Tajani adds that getting the budget under control is "a good message to the UK". As far back as 2001, the British government tried to block Galileo and, while those reservations were formally dropped, officials and politicians have privately spat blood over the budget ever since.

The UK was slightly placated last month with a €250m contract to build eight satellites. Although the contract was won by Germany's OHB, this group is closely linked with Guildford-based Surrey Satellite Technologies, which will build satellite components. As a demonstration of the EU's attempts to ease UK concerns, the contract was signed in London.

Tajani maintains the charm offensive, pointing out that "you have strong aerospace companies in the UK", which are important for research and innovation in the European space programme.

The commissioner also highlights the contracts the UK is at least a part of, such as the €73.5m package won by Astrium (UK) last year and that awarded to ABSL (UK) to provide €1.6m of batteries for the latest batch of satellites.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is a vocal supporter of growing the UK space sector, and has said that the contracts are a testament to "our strengths in manufacturing highly advanced satellite technology". That's the UK, then, won over.

More problematic has been the US response. Europe feared it was over-reliant on the US's groundbreaking GPS, putting it in danger of a continent-wide communication breakdown if the White House ever chose to pull the plug.

After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, the George Bush administration feared the proliferation of GPS systems had safety implications. The hawkish former defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz was worried that access to Galileo would be so open that it could help military opponents identify and attack US troops.

However, the frequency at which Galileo transmits its information has now been changed, helping to protect US operatives. Tajani argues: "The US was against Galileo, but now we are working better together and co-operating."

That diplomacy drive is taking Tajani as far afield as China, Israel and Africa, signing agreements on frequencies and explaining how Galileo could help the EU develop a viable foreign policy.

"Your life can be improved by Galileo," says Tajani, though the full network of 30 satellites will not be ready until 2020. Tajani insists that the 2014 start-up date is safe, but, given the problems so far, it is difficult to feel certain that Galileo will stay on a smooth orbit.