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EU to Expand Space Program

The EU is setting its sights on space. Does that mean launching its own astronaut, as China recently did? Not likely, but it could mean more jobs and profits for those on the ground.

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This Galileo satellite is just the start: the EU plans to invest more in space

Responding to pressure from an ever more competitive space race, the European Union will take steps to increase its presence in space, according to a white paper released by the European Commission on Tuesday. The paper, which was drawn up by the Commission in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), outlines an ambitious plan: EU investment in space-related technology could double over the next ten years.

When asked if this would culminate in efforts to launch an EU astronaut, Philippe Busquin, the EU commissioner in charge of space research, said, "It's important to have a serious agenda. I myself would definitely be in favor."

But that does not appear to be the top priority of the white paper, which does not even mention such a possibility. Instead, it concentrates on efforts to develop both the civilian and military benefits of space-related technology. Above all, the paper is concerned with securing the EU's independent access to space.

A space program: it's good for you

Space research and space-related technology are a key source of jobs in Europe. In fact, 30,000 EU citizens are currently employed in more than 2,000 space-industry related firms. And the sector is a growing one. For example, demand for satellite navigation services and related products is growing by 25 percent a year, and it could be a €100 billion ($117 billion) industry by 2010, creating 40,000 new jobs for skilled Europeans.

According to the white paper, every euro invested in space technology yields a turnover of €7-8. Thus, if Europe wants to remain competitive, so the line of reasoning goes, increased investment is necessary.

"If Europe does not adopt the proposed approach to space policy, it will decline as a 'space power' because of an inability to develop new technologies and sustain applications with serious consequent damage to its overall competitiveness," the report states. What's more, it also suggests that increased technological capacity could be useful to efforts to create a common European foreign and security policy.

Busquin concurs. "The development of Europe's capabilities in satellite communications, global positioning, and Earth observation will boost applications and have important social, economic and commercial benefits for Europe," he said on Tuesday.

Seeking independence

Europe has often relied on access to satellites and technology controlled by the United States, but over the last few years it has made increased efforts to secure independent access, including the development of the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Global Monitoring and Earth Observation System (GMES).

The EU currently spends €5.38 billion on its space policy, which has been growing 2.3 percent per year. But the European Commission thinks the yearly increase needs to be doubled, to 4.6 percent, to achieve its goals.

Space, a shared competence

The new program will be rolled out in two phases, under the title of the "European Space Program." The first phase will go from 2004-2007, and activities already agreed upon in the recent framework agreement between the European Community and the ESA will be instituted, including developing a European space policy. The second more ambitious phase will launch after 2007, when it is expected that the new EU constitutions will declare space a shared competence of EU members.

But first, some sticky issues regarding who will control the purse strings need to be sorted out. The ESA, which currently spearheads EU space projects, is an intergovernmental institution, which mean that individual member states control the budget. But if space is declared a "shared competence," more control could be handed over to the European Commission.

So the EU may be heading into space, but who will be sitting in the driver's seat and who will pay the bills remain to be seen.

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