At any given moment, dozens of US and Russian navigation satellites whiz by high above the earth, guiding airliners, cars, and backpackers to their destinations.
But the Europeans have no "birds" of their own to navigate by.
Yesterday, leaders of the European Space Agency (ESA) took steps to rectify that - and then some. They decided to build Europe's own constellation of navigation satellites. Today, they expect a go-ahead from the European Union, which is needed for the joint effort to take flight.
The project is part of a major strategy shift, designed to link the 25-year-old space agency more tightly with the Continent's high-tech economic goals. If successful, some analysts say, the change could mark a significant turning point in Europe's post-cold-war quest for tighter political and economic unity and an emerging military independence from the United States.
"The European Union, with ESA as the space-operations arm of the union, could be a very powerful competitor," says Ray Williamson at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
The effort to bring space to earth for Europeans was set out in writing on Nov. 16, when the ESA and the EU published a joint strategy for the Continent's space efforts.
The goal is to increase the ESA's responsiveness to what Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA director of strategy and technical assessment, calls the "real world."
During a recent interview, he noted that until now, the agency has been concerned primarily with the "space world."
"So far, most of our activities have been pushed by the technology and pushed by engineers in this space world," he says. "Now it is time to reverse that. Our hope is that from now on, it will not be the space world pushing satellites, but society asking for satellites."
The new navigation-satellite project, called Galileo, is scheduled to be fully operational by 2008. And it casts light on some of the motivations behind the new strategy.
One of the main drivers behind setting up a network with the "Made in Europe" label is economic, Mr. Dordain suggests.
For years, Europeans have dominated the commercial launch business, thanks to the Ariane family of rockets. Now, they are looking at its potential markets for satellite-navigation equipment and services - and they see a gold mine. Between 2005 and 2020, the market is estimated to grow to 270 billion euros ($241 billion).
"Are we sure that European entrepreneurs will have access on an equal footing with US investors when the basic infrastructure is American?" he asks.
Despite President Clinton's efforts to ensure access to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), Dordain notes that the satellites are still owned by the Pentagon, suggesting that under some circumstances, access to accurate signals could be cut off.
"This is not a war against GPS," he says. "The US is our best friend, and it is providing a lot of signs that it's ready to provide this free access forever. But if Europe wants to be economically competitive, if Europe wants to have a common foreign and security policy, Europe must have the space infrastructure to fulfill these objectives."
Indeed, the prospect of tighter links between the ESA and Europe's security policy is one aspect of the new strategy that Eligar Sadeh finds the most intriguing. "ESA has traditionally stayed away from that area," says Mr. Sadeh, director of Colorado State University's Center for Engineering Infrastructure and Sciences in Space, in Fort Collins. The strategy's support for independent navigation and earth-observing systems "ties ESA into Europe's common defense and security initiatives," he says.
Those initiatives include the establishment of a European security force of as many as 60,000 troops, one outcome of a European Commission meeting in Nice, France, earlier this month.
Dordain maintains that an independent space-based observing system also is vital for agreements that involve agriculture or the environment. One reason climate talks broke down in November was that some members of the EU delegation remained unconvinced that land- and forest-management efforts could be verified if they were included as means of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
"What happened at The Hague reinforces in my view the need for Europe to build its own monitoring system," Dordain says.
Noting that under the right circumstances, environmental regulations can kill industries, he adds, "We cannot rely just on one source of information for such an important problem."
If the Nov. 16 joint strategy lays out the immediate road ahead for the ESA, the agency's director-general, Antonio Rodota, clearly is thinking longer term. In November, he received a report from "three wise men" he appointed earlier this year.
The panel - which included Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden and the UN special envoy to the Balkans; Jean Peyrelevade, president of Credit Lyonnais, and Lothat Spath, CEO of Jenoptik, a German high-tech firm - called for tighter integration between the EU and ESA, in effect recommending that the ESA become the EU's space agency, with decisions about its objectives and programs taken at the highest levels of government.
"We must integrate space fully in our overall policy efforts," they write. "This is the difference between a Europe willing to lead and a Europe only capable of following."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society