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Europe's Great Space Race

With the success of its first Mars probe, the planned launch of the Galileo satellite navigation system, Europe is emerging as a global space power. But does it have a chance of beating NASA in the space game?

Like Washington, Europe also wants to send astronauts to Mars.

Like Washington, Europe also wants to send astronauts to Mars.

Part one of a three-part special report:

Last Christmas, the scientists at the European Space Agency's mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, burned the midnight oil. Bleary eyes scanned flickering monitors for signs that the agency's first Mars lander had arrived safely. If things had gone according to script, the Beagle 2 would have sent back a signal playing a short ditty by the British group Blur. But instead of doing a celebratory dance to a pop tune, ESA scientists sat stunned as the computers broadcast nothing but an ominous silence

"It was very tense," David Southwood, the affable, white-maned head of science at the European Space Agency admitted. "We had really committed ourselves to something, and this was the first time the wrong thing happened and we had a null result."

A few weeks later, ESA gave up the search, declaring Beagle dead on arrival. But a guardian angel appeared to be watching over the scientists. Almost as quickly as the news of failure came, the agency chalked up its first Mars success. On Jan. 19, the agency, which includes 15 European member states, released the first spectacular images from the German-designed, high-resolution camera carried by its Mars Express probe, which began orbiting Earth's closest neighbor the same month.


An image of Mars' grand canyon, the Valles Marineris, taken by the German-developed high-resolution stereo camera on board Mars Express.

"Seeing the pictures, I thought: We've really done it," Southwood said. On the next day the pictures, which had been beamed down from space, were splashed across the front pages of European newspapers. Four days later, ESA scored another triumph: Mars Express had detected frozen water on the Red Planet.

Europe comes into its own

Over the past 18 months, Europe's space science ambitions have begun to crystallize. Besides Mars Express, the agency has volleyed the comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft halfway across the solar system, sent a probe to the moon and shuttled European astronauts to the International Space Station.

Behind the steady stream of projects tailor-made for National Geographic, something more profound is unfolding in Europe. In an increasing number of areas, ESA is starting to give the United States space program a run for its money.

"There's a recognition in the U.S. that Europe has very strong space capabilities," explained James Lewis, director of technology public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We're in a crux period here as we are in other aspects of the transatlantic relationship about whether we will work cooperatively or competitively."

As the chairman of the European Parliament's Sky and Space Intragroup, Gilles Savary of France is an outspoken champion of an expanding European space program. He said rivalry with the U.S. is healthy: "It is competition, but competition is sometimes good because it stimulates technology and promotes performance."

NEXT PAGE: A new constellation

Europe has many pots on the stove right now, including its slick solar system missions. But it's three other programs currently in development that are likely to have the most impact on everyday life.

ESA: Galileo

Galileo is the European answer to the American GPS satellite system. Thirty satellites will help serve the navigation needs of millions when it goes into service in 2008.

ESA and its contractors throughout Europe are preparing for a 2008 launch of the Galileo constellation of satellites, which will eliminate Europe's reliance on the American military's global positioning system. The €3.2 billion Galileo project, which comprises about 30 modern-day Sputniks, will provide precise tracking information across the globe to as many as 2.5 billion users by 2020, according to a Price-Waterhouse Coopers study. It will help control traffic on Europe's streets and in the skies, as well as provide soldiers with precise positioning during peacekeeping missions.

ESA: Envirosat

Satellites like Envisat-1 are helping the European Union to better monitor changes on Earth.

Another cluster of satellites, Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES), will help Europe guard its borders and study climate and environmental changes. GMES can also help the EU monitor policy compliance, like ensuring that farmers are growing crops in sync with their subsidies or that countries are adhering to international treaties like the Kyoto protocol. Closer to home, the satellites are to provide real-time tracking of disasters like last summer's wildfires in France, the 2002 flooding in eastern Germany or human catastrophes like the recent escalation of violence in Kosovo.

A third proposal, eEurope, aims to bring satellite-based high-speed Internet access and other services linked to Europe's goal of boosting innovation and research to become the leading knowledge-based society, to far-flung corners of the continent, from Lapland to rural farmlands, reducing the digital divide and bringing services like telemedicine to places where hospitals don't have access to specialists. The proposed plan would be especially important for parts of Southern Europe with antiquated telecommunications infrastructures.

A space race?

Europe's celestial ambitions are already raising eyebrows in Washington. Some fear the technology gap in the Americans' favor -- something the U.S. has always encouraged -- is starting to close. Though Galileo and GMES are being launched with civilian intentions, both have dual-use capabilities. "People who say Europe and China are a threat to the U.S. are translating military considerations," explained Laurence Nardon, a space policy expert at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. "There's a desire in Washington to always have the U.S. one generation ahead technologically than any competitors. Now, many see Europe as encroaching on U.S. capacities."

GPS Navigation in Paris

Car navigation is only one application of satellite positioning. Galileo will also be used to track freight on trucks and manage Europe's crowded skies.

The Galileo program has long been a thorn in the side of transatlantic relations. The past two U.S. administrations have opposed the project, describing it as a threat to the planned military expansion of its own GPS codes and an unnecessary duplication of technology. The U.S. feared that Galileo's "public regulated service" signal, which was very close in frequency to the planned M-Code, would make it impossible for the U.S. military to scramble its own code in an emergency. But such scrambling has also been at the heart of the debate between Brussels and Washington: Europeans point out that the Pentagon deliberately scrambled its GPS signal for security reasons during the Kosovo war, thereby handicapping non-military GPS devices in many areas. Europe says that shows its lack of reliability for civilian uses. A deal has since been reached that will move Europe's PRS-code to a less proximate frequency and make GPS and Galileo interoperable. Nevertheless, the sometimes acrimonious tug-of-war leading up to the deal will unlikely be forgotten.

"U.S. military space dominance began to be very clearly recognized with the first Gulf War," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Europe had very strong feelings during the first space war "about having to ask the U.S. for imagery, having to rely on the United States for providing navigation systems. Sometimes the U.S. was open to sharing and sometimes it wasn't."


ESA: ISS Niederlande

Europe is a major participant in the International Space Station project, supplying both the Columbus research laboratory and the Automated Transfer Vehicles that will be used to ferry supplies to it.

Questions also persist about the future of ESA's relationship with NASA in the United States. For decades, the two agencies have worked closely together on scientific projects as well as the ambitious and expensive International Space Station. Yet even where there is cooperation, problems sometimes arise. Washington's desire to remain "preeminent in space" can sometimes appear like bully behavior to others.

"Europe participates in American initiatives in space science and in manned flight," a 2003 European Commission report stated. "However, as a general rule, and thanks to the size of its investment, NASA expects to remain in control of design, development and means of launch such that Europe contributes to the less strategic aspects of space missions."

Still, overall ties between the European and American space programs are robust. "ESA is the U.S.'s main partner in space today and, while we have achieved a great deal on our own, what most people don't realize is that almost every task now being undertaken in space, whether by us, by the Russians or by the Americans, is the result of co-operation," ESA Director General Jacques-Jean Dordain recently said.

Ultimately, ESA's close cooperation with NASA could also shape its own future.

Life after the space shuttle

President George W. Bush recently announced that the space shuttle fleet will be retired in 2010 and that construction of the International Space Station must be completed by then. The announcement has two major implications. The first is that Russia and Europe will have to take charge of getting astronauts and supplies to the station after the shuttles are mothballed. Second, European space experts will have to get more serious about the possibility of creating a full-scale manned space program in the future.

ESA: SHM Tunnel

Without more funding, sketches like this will be the closest Europe gets to Mars.

ESA is already getting started, beefing up a launching facility in South America and moving forward on its "Aurora" study, which would send humans to the Moon and Mars. But the €9 million invested in Aurora so far is only a drop in the bucket compared to the tens or hundreds of billions it would take to transform the vision into reality.

And that's ESA's biggest problem: Unless its members show more willingness to dig deeper into their pockets, such visions will never leave the drawing board.

Anemic space spending

The European Advisory Group on Aeronautics noted in a recent report that in 1999 U.S. aerospace companies posted revenues of €33.7 billion from space-related business, of which three-quarters was funded by the Department of Defense and NASA. By comparison, European companies had made less than €5.5 million, and only half came from government sources. Moreover, public funding for space programs in Europe averages less than €15 per head. The U.S. spends €110 per person.

ESA: European Flags

Finding a consensus can sometimes be difficult for ESA, which has 15 member states.

Bureaucracy is proving another stumbling block for Europe. In the U.S., Washington determines funding and priorities for the space program, while the ESA must get approvals from as many as 15 different countries. It must also compete with a number of national space agencies for funding. Some of that could change as the EU funnels more money towards ESA for projects like Galileo or GMES, but expensive visions like Aurora will still be at the mercy of national governments. The organization's complicated structure also makes it possible for members to opt out of individual programs.

The European Commission has called for more than doubling its annual research budget, from the current €5 billion a year to €12 billion starting in 2007. Many of the EU's space proposals are depending on the extra cash infusion. But calls from Paris and Berlin to freeze the current EU budget and the costs of Europe's eastern expansion mean those additional funds are anything but certain.

"We now have come to a point where we need to drastically and radically reinforce this effort," Kurt Vandenberghe, a senior advisor to the European commissioner for research, told a space conference organized by the Catholic University and the space consultancy firm Systemics Network International in Leuven, Belgium, earlier this year. "Otherwise we risk gradually losing the basis that we have. If we want to maintain the expertise, if we want to maintain the strength of our industry in Europe, we need to have a new and stronger look at space."

Daryl Lindsey, with reporting assistance from Helen Groumas and Sophie Duron

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