Questions in Wake of New Galileo Delay - Inside GNSS - Global Navigation Satellite Systems Engineering, Policy, and Design

Questions in Wake of New Galileo Delay

Some of the specific technical issues behind the latest delay for Galileo’s first full operational capability (FOC) satellites have already been reported. The story, as it is told, generally starts with a late navigation payload delivery by British firm Surrey Satellite Technology to the German prime contractor, OHB. Next, OHB ran into issues with the payload and the platform, further stretching out the timeline.

Some of the specific technical issues behind the latest delay for Galileo’s first full operational capability (FOC) satellites have already been reported. The story, as it is told, generally starts with a late navigation payload delivery by British firm Surrey Satellite Technology to the German prime contractor, OHB. Next, OHB ran into issues with the payload and the platform, further stretching out the timeline.

This resulted in the first two satellites being delivered late to ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, where they were to be tested. Meanwhile, ESTEC’s thermal vacuum chamber, designed to test satellites in extreme space-like conditions, apparently was not ready to proceed with the work, further delaying the sequence of events.

We could go on with the technical details, but for some at the European Commission (EC), none of these excuses — nor all of them together — are sufficient to explain this new postponement, suddenly announced, which sees the next launch pushed back astoundingly to the middle of next year.

Round 1 – Brussels
First, let’s hear from Vice-President Tajani, speaking in Brussels in October at a meeting hosted by the European Parliament entitled Galileo 2.0. He delivered his speech in French; so, the citations here are translated and perhaps best considered paraphrased.

Tajani started with the good news: Galileo is moving forward. Now for the bad news: it’s moving forward more slowly than planned.

Tajani said he “deplored” the fact that we are now unlikely to see any launches in 2013, and he wasted no time in getting to the heart of the matter. “The satellites we are building are the first in a new series, of a new generation, and of a new European industrial player in the program, the OHB company.”

“These kinds of technical difficulties,” he added, “are inherent in any space project of this magnitude. At the start of many aerospace projects, obstacles emerge from time to time.”

And this is perhaps a key to understanding why some find it more and more difficult not to raise their voices in frustration when discussing the Galileo launch schedule.

Mr. Tajani is not guilty of this impropriety. He continued to develop his thesis with patience and utter calm. Quality must be assured, he said, every element must be checked. Whenever there is doubt, the necessary time must and will be taken. No one can disagree with these sentiments.

Back to the heart of the matter — the selection of OHB-System AG, spurning at the same time the European Satellite Navigation Industries (ESNIS) consortium and its primary member, EADS Astrium, that had built the four in-orbit validation (IOV) satellites (at a substantial cost overrun and behind schedule). In contrast, at the time the Galileo FOC contract was awarded, Bremen, Germany–based OHB had just finished building and launching the German SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance system on time and within budget.

“The choice,” Tajani said, “was made in strictest conformity with the rules, based on an offer that represented the best quality-to-price ratio and based on the recommendations of ESA technical panels.”

This is important to remember — ESA was responsible for the technical evaluation of the candidates, quite naturally; the EC is not responsible for technical issues; it simply manages.

To that point, Tajani insisted that the commission has been doing its job.

“The Commission, while according its full confidence to the European Space Agency — that is to say its architect and its supervisor — has always assumed its political responsibilities,” he told Parliament. “Everything that we are supposed to do has been done.”

So then, we might well ask, who is to blame?

In spite of all the EC’s efforts, Tajani suggested, the solutions to the technical issues were not under-stood or were discovered too late. He acknowledged that strong efforts have been made by OHB and that ESA has reinforced its support and supervision of the newcomer, and he thanked ESA Director-General Dordain for these efforts.

“But we must go farther,” he said. “And today, both OHB and ESA must take the necessary measures to face up to their responsibilities. And that is why I have asked Mr. Dordain to explain both the reasons why the problems were not anticipated and the solutions to be put in place for the future.”

In addition, he added, “Mr. Dordain has promised to give me, by the end of this month, a solid timetable, including three launches in 2014 and the delivery of initial services before the end of next year.”

Though pronounced calmly and courteously, these were indeed strong words coming from the Commission and directed at ESA, at a public event for all to hear. Days later, voices in the corridors of both institutions were still replaying the scene and, on some parts, with delight.

Once he has Dordain’s new timetable, Tajani continued, he will show it to the rest of us. He finished by reminding the audience that when he took office, no one wanted to talk about Galileo because it was a synonym for cost overruns.

“Today, that is no longer the case,” he said. “During my last mandate as Commissioner for Industry, I never requested one single, extra euro for Galileo.”

And he is not going to start now.

“It is for this reason that when the time comes, the penalties provided for in the contract will be enforced,” Tajani finished.

Meaning someone is going to pay for the delay.

Face to Face
Tajani’s words, delivered politely, were nevertheless firm and direct. Indeed, they could not have been more direct, as Director-General Dordain was seated facing him in the front row of the audience. But the vice-president’s words pale in comparison to what others in Brussels had already been saying off the record.

One informed official puts the case plainly: “After having eliminated the ESNIS consortium [Galileo Industries in a previous incarnation] in 2008, ESA officially became the ‘industrial prime’ of the Galileo program and also the procurement agent on behalf of the European Commission. But studies and internal audits have repeatedly shown that ESA is not able to carry out the duties of an industrial prime.

“ESA should have understood well in advance the deficiencies of OHB and the unrealistic nature of their schedule,” this source said. “On the contrary, ESA with its ‘hands-off’ approach, typical of an agency but not at all of an industrial prime, relied uncritically on OHB.”

Asked to comment on the specific technical problems that have caused the latest delay, our EC source says, “This is exactly the point — there is no major technical problem. The planning and schedule from OHB were simply unrealistic, given their lack of experience and the lack of adequate technical management. But all this could have been known at least one year ago.”

For those at the Commission who are now living the embarrassment, taking the blame for yet another Galileo mishap, three paragraphs are not enough.

“The problem is not the delay as such,” our source continued. “This kind of situation is not unusual in the space industry, especially when a new design is being qualified. The problem is that until May of this year, ESA was still telling the Commission that the launch would take place at the end of September. Now, all of a sudden, they have pushed the probable date to June 2014, postponing the launch by almost one year.”

When we put these views to ESA, the agency’s Media Relations Office sounded indignant.

Pal A. Hvistendahl responded, “ESA finds these allegations surprising. They do not convey the facts of the matter, and we cannot believe that this comes from the European Commission. This depiction does not reflect the relationship and discussions between ESA and the Commission. Therefore, we do not want to react to these unfounded accusations.”

ESA’s Dordain was more forthcoming when he spoke at the European Parliament, also in French, just moments after Tajani’s speech. He did not respond directly to the EC vice-president’s statement, but he did mention the problem with ESTEC’s thermal chamber and he did announce his intention to deliver a new launch schedule in early December.

The schedule, he said, would include three launches in 2014. We’ll see how that pans out, realizing that Mr Dordain will have to rely on his technical teams on the ground to get the job done.

Dordain also showed some of the classiness he is known for by defending OHB, noting that, after all, the company is new to the scene, a new player.

If all this sounds a bit calamitous, never fear, the bust-up at the Parliament was to be followed quickly by a major event in Munich, organized by the third big player in Europe’s Satellite navigation program, the European GNSS Agency (GSA). Everyone would be there, hands would be shaken, and all would be forgiven . . . one would have thought.

Round 2 – Munich
The European Space Solutions conference traditionally brings together pretty much everyone who is anyone in the European space-based services and applications community, encompassing both the Galileo and Copernicus (the Earth observation system formerly known as GMES, Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security) programs.

At the opening plenary session, one of the speakers (subbing for one of the announced speakers) called the conference “the most important event of the year for the EU satnav community,” but the only thing that anyone sitting there could have been sure of was that all the headline speakers had gone missing.

Many of the participants — businessmen and women, application developers, entrepreneurs and representatives of Europe’s top industrial groups — would have been expecting, nay hoping, to see the handshakes and the renewed determination, explanations, to be sure, or at the very least a few reassuring words from Galileo’s top leaders.

But the real story was what didn’t happen — Vice-President Tajani, ESA chief Dordain, Commission Deputy Director-General of Enterprise and Industry Paul Weissenberg, and two high-flying German representatives — all of whom were announced speakers — turned out to be no-shows.

Many perplexed looks were exchanged among the audience as apologies were made and, one after another, substitute plenary speakers were introduced.

More cynical minds might have thought they saw a pattern developing: Blown promises followed by disappearing acts. No forewarning. The disappointment was palpable.

What If Galileo Threw a Party and Nobody Came?
Let’s be clear about one thing, let us be fair — every one of the scheduled speakers who did not appear had a very good excuse.

Tajani, we learned, was meeting with no lesser body than the European Parliament. Paul Weissenberg, Tajani’s right-hand man for space, really did need to be with him. The German Minister had been called to a very important meeting that would determine the future of the German government. . . .

But let’s be fair to Galileo too. The opening plenary session should have featured the top man at the Commission and the top man at ESA.

The EC representative who spoke was the brand-new EU Satellite Navigation Director, two or three steps down in the EC “organigram” from Tajani and just two weeks into his new position. Matthias Petschke described himself as a newcomer, he said some very interesting things, and in all honesty he cut an impressive figure — but no one knew who he was. The ESA representative who spoke was the agency’s head of Copernicus, Europe’s earth observation program; so, there wasn’t an ESA Galileo officer of any rank on the platform.

Fine, never mind all that. The pointed question was going to come, no matter who was there to answer it. When the mic was finally given to the floor during the business roundtable — no questions were allowed during the plenary session — one audience member, a young Asian lady, stood up and ask, rather forcefully: “Why do we need Galileo? It’s one delay after another. We have GPS, we have GLONASS, COMPASS [China’s BeiDou GNSS] is coming. They are all working. Galileo is always late. What is Galileo for?”

The whole place froze for an instant, then turned into a mass of gasping and giggling, shifting and shuffling, and then froze again.

Mauro Facchini, the Commission’s Copernicus man at that moment moderating the roundtable, gathered himself and then judiciously deferred the question to GSA Director Carlo des Dorides, now the ranking Galileo executive at the event, who was just about to deliver the opening session’s concluding remarks as the roundtable drew to a close.

The valiant des Dorides — elbowed to the rear when skies are bright, elbowed to the front when things go wrong — put on a brave face.

They had almost gotten away with it. Through the plenary, through the business roundtable, and almost to the end of the opening session, no one had seen fit to address the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. And if it hadn’t been for that impertinent audience member, no one would have.

What des Dorides said is not the point. Everyone already knew the answer: Galileo is about civil control, European independence, high accuracy, a stimulant to new innovation, etc., etc.

But the real question wasn’t why the world needs Galileo. The real question was about leadership. Is there anyone in Europe, anyone at all, who can and will stand up, right the ship, face the heat, answer the tough questions, and then take Galileo by the scruff of the neck and march it through the finish line?

Tajani showed that kind of leadership when he put ESA on the spot at the Galileo 2.0 event, but his failure to appear in Munich felt like a step back. The absence of an authority figure at this event at this time, other important duties or no other important duties, sent absolutely the wrong message.

The real measure of the success of Galileo, by Tajani’s own admission, will be how much money it makes for the European economy, but the business people who are going to make that happen are exactly the ones who got stood up in Munich.

Still Happy Together?
One thing that Tajani and Dordain can both agree on is that Galileo is moving forward; it is on the right track, if the slow track. It is going to happen.

We know that: Galileo works — those four lonely FOC satellites up there produce good results when they are all in view. Applications based on the region’s satellite-based augmentation system EGNOS and other ready for Galileo are flourishing around Europe. Important regulatory measures are now in place to integrate Galileo within European services and infrastructures (e.g. e-Call).

All major chipset and receiver manufacturers have already developed or are going to develop products compatible with Galileo (e.g., STM, Intel, u-blox, Qualcomm, and others). More than 30 percent of GNSS receivers around the world are Galileo-ready; and the “service-oriented profile” of Galileo has set the standard for GNSS worldwide.

Tajani supporters note that the VP has been very energetic in his push for early services in 2014, because he believes this is the best way to get all parties to come to the Galileo table, to move as quickly as possible away from a purely technology- and development-oriented posture to a service-oriented one.

Innovators and entrepreneurs now need to have confidence in the program and believe in the people who are running the show.

The program seemed to be gaining momentum in recent months. Now, the Galileo team needs to get some new wins under its belt. They need to breathe and breed confidence, or the people who matter most are going to start asking themselves once again if it is still worth the trouble.