December 3, 2008
Galileo Blog
Watch the program: Part 1 / Part 2

“Welcome Belgium TV Crew.” That’s what I read on an illuminated news trailer when we drove into the Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. My camera crew and I were being escorted to one of the most important places for airplane pilots, sailors, car drivers and many others all over the world: the operations center of the Global Positioning System, aka GPS. It took me several months to get permission to go and film there, so I was glad to see that we were welcome.

Why would a journalist from Belgium and a TV-crew take 4 connecting flights and travel 20 hours from Brussels to Colorado Springs to see a room full of computers, something you can see in any other office?

I got the idea when I was doing research on Galileo. Not the 16th century Italian astronomer. Galileo is also the name that was given in 1999 by the European Commission to an ambitious project: the Commission was proposing to build a European satellite navigation system to rival the American GPS, and they named it Galileo. One of the main arguments was that GPS is built and controlled by the US Army. Europe no longer wanted to be dependent on the US for such a vital infrastructure.

It is true, I saw it with my own eyes. The people behind the computers in the GPS Operations Center were wearing military uniforms. They are the people who make sure that the GPS-satellites are sending signals down to earth, for millions of users around the globe. The same signals are used by the troops in Iraq. When Al Qaeda terrorist Al Zarqawi was killed by a US-missile, the GPS Operations center in Colorado Springs played an important role in getting the missile to its target, the commander Lt Col Kurt Kuntzelman told me.

Galileo, on the contrary, will be run by civilian authorities, the European Commission said in 1999, not soldiers. And it will be up and running in 2008, they promised. And it will be better, because it will give users a more precise location.

It didn’t happen. What did happen with the project was symbolic for many European projects: big ideas, but bad management. And member states fighting to get the best part of the cake: who should build the satellites, which country should get the control center. By now, the best guess is that Galileo will be ready by 2013.

Meanwhile, I am very happy with the small handheld GPS-device I bought last year. It makes travelling by car a lot easier. The signals it receives are sent by American (military) satellites. But the digital maps inside the device are made by the Belgian company Tele Atlas, one of the most important digital map makers in the world.

-- From Rob Heirbaut, EU correspondent for VRT
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