Mention the word "Europe" these days and most people's minds speedily couple it with such words as "row" or "rivalry". All the more welcome, therefore, that in defiance of those stereotypical images of disharmony, the Europeans - and yes, that does mean us - launched our first test satellite of the Galileo navigation system - the first step in an ambitious and costly project that will change the lives of millions in the near future.
The final benefits of Galileo are still far off. Years of work have yielded only one satellite, the British made Giove A, launched from a Russian space station in Kazakhstan, which will have only a two-year life. But by 2010, when the European Space Agency has 30 satellites orbiting the earth at 14,000 feet, things will look very different. What we in Europe will then jointly possess is our own civilian-controlled navigation system of unique and unprecedented precision which ordinary people, as well as governments and big companies, will be able to access directly through receivers.
It is not just air traffic control and other transport management systems that will see revolutionary change. Individual lives will be touched. Consider this: the astonishing accuracy of Galileo, which will enable users to locate their position on the ground to within inches, may mean that, with the aid of hand-held devices that speak directions, blind people will navigate dense city streets with ease. Galileo will help sufferers from the early stages of Alzheimers or others whose conditions render them easily confused, to reach their destinations through interfaces featuring simple arrows.
Other potential beneficiaries are more obvious: lost taxi drivers, hikers stuck in the mist and tourists unable to find the right restaurant. Rescue services will be able to tell ambulances which lane to use on busy highways. Five-mile tail tailbacks on the M6 or M25 could conceivably become as delightfully archaic as the thought of a "pea-souper" in London, as motorists artfully hang off motorways long before they reach the pile-up.
We will have to pay for it, however. And therein lies the catch. The European governments and private businesses putting money into this public-private partnership expect a revenue-generating service at the end. So get ready for howls of anguish at the price tag.
But there will be plenty of time to argue over the cost. Now is the time to sigh with relief that we, the notoriously squabbling Europeans, have got this far at all. The project has been dogged by US opposition, as our transatlantic ally showed no enthusiasm about the prospect of Europe ending its monopoly on space-based navigation. The system was seen as a rival to the US's Global Positioning System, and Washington tried hard to persuade some European governments not to take part. The Pentagon even suggested Galileo might pose a security threat, claiming its signals would interfere with those intended for the US military.
There have also been any number of delays and spats between the funding governments. Only weeks ago Germany threatened to pull the plug, demanding a bigger stake in the project for German firms. Thankfully, those life-threatening rows seem behind us. The Americans are grumpily reconciled to Galileo's existence and have agreed to ensure that their own GPS and Galileo are compatible. The Germans remain on board.
With only one test satellite in space, there is plenty of time for more disputes. But let's not underplay what's been achieved. In a year marked by dissent and disunity, the Europeans have united to start a space navigation system that no one else can turn off, scramble, abuse or profit from in any way. And that's something of which we can all be proud.Reuse content