As European Union governments consider how to get the problem-plagued Galileo satellite navigation system into orbit, one EU official who has been there has simple advice - do it fast, or else the Chinese will steal the show.
The first man in space from neither the United States nor the Soviet Union, Czech European Parliament member Vladimir Remek warned of a blunder of cosmic proportions - and a wasted business opportunity - if the multibillion euro project fails to take off.
EU transport ministers will discuss on Friday whether to throw a lifeline to Galileo by switching to full public funding of the project that is running years behind schedule.
Envisaged as a rival for the U.S.-run Global Positioning System, or GPS, Galileo would comprise a network of 30 satellites beaming radio signals to receiving devices on the ground, helping users pinpoint their locations.
The project faces major delays or collapse, however, as a consortium of eight companies from France, Germany, Spain, Britain and Italy has been unable to agree on how to share the work.
The European Commission has recommended that Galileo be taken away from the companies, after they missed a May deadline to set up a joint legal entity to run the project. It is now not expected to be up and running before 2012.
"At this point the delay is still not a catastrophe, it's just a nuisance. A problem can occur in this stage of a major project, that's not unheard of. But if the protraction continues, it'll be a massive disgrace for Europe," said Remek, who went to orbit aboard a Soviet spaceship in 1978.
China is building its own global positioning system, which should provide the country with navigation and positioning services beginning in 2008.
Remek, an EU parliamentarian since 2004 after a lifetime dealing with cosmic issues, warned that if the European Union drags its feet, the global market will be parceled and another positioning system will not be profitable
"China is a phenomenon which the world has not quite grasped. If their system is as professional as GPS and comes much cheaper, a European system will not be necessary and Europe will continue to depend on others," he told The Associated Press.
Galileo - which is interoperable with GPS - would more than double existing GPS coverage, providing navigation for people from motorists to pilots to emergency rescue teams. It is expected to improve coverage in high-latitude areas such as northern Europe, and in big cities where skyscrapers can block signals.
Galileo will also be more exact than GPS, with precision of up to one meter (3.3 feet), compared with five meters (16.4 feet) with GPS technology. And unlike GPS - which is ultimately controlled by the U.S. military - it would be a civilian-based system run by a civilian authority and could not be turned off.
Public funds were originally set aside to cover around one-third of the euro3.6 billion (US$4.85 billion) Galileo, with the private sector penciled in to provide the rest.
The cost would rise should the project suffer more delays, the European Commission warned.
But EU governments must decide if they are willing to cover the full cost of constructing the system and, more importantly, from where they would pull the money.
A final decision is likely to be made later this year - possibly at a November meeting - after Portugal takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency from Germany.
Only one of Galileo's 30 planned satellites has been launched, in December 2005. The second satellite missed its autumn 2006 launch date after it short-circuited during final testing.
By comparison, the GPS system has 24 satellites.
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