Did you know the inventor of the GPS was NASA’s Gladys West?
Gladys West invented the Global Positioning System, or well known as the GPS navigation system. The recognition West deserves has been given to her by the induction into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame by the United States Air Force. Even though she was unable to attend the induction ceremony, West was presented with one of the Air Force’s Space Commands’ highest honors.
Gladys West grew up in a poor household in a rural community
Dr. West was born in 1930 in a rural community in Dinwiddie County, VA where her family had a small farm. Most of her home life she was surrounded by sharecroppers, farmers, and tobacco factory workers. She decided early on that the rural Virginia life was not the future she wanted for herself. She knew education was the only key for her to get off the farm, and she worked hard to get top grades in all of her subjects in school. Her family didn’t have the money to send her to college, but her hard work had paid off when she received a scholarship to study at Virginia State University by graduating from her high school as Vdaledictorian.
At first, she was doing the math handwriting herself, but she then transitioned to programming computers. Dr. West decided to major in mathematics at Virginia State University, where she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. After graduating with her Bachelors’s degree, Dr. West taught science and math in Waverly, VA for two years before returning to VSU for her Masters’s degree in Mathematics. The following year West was hired as a mathematician at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, VA, where she “analyzed satellite data”. She was one of the only four African American employees at the time.
Dr. West’s studied about Pluto’s motion in space
Through the early 1960s, Dr. West worked on an ‘astronomical’ study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. The belief was that for every two orbits Pluto makes, Neptune makes three. This was called “orbital resonance”. Following this, she joined the Seasat radar altimetry project as a project manager.
West used the information from Seasat and other satellites to refine over the years a detailed and accurate mathematical model of the actual shape of the earth, called a “geoid”. This ‘computational modeling’ would prove essential to modern GPS, as the technology relies on this model in order to determine the position of a receiver.
After Gladys West’s astronomical accomplishments
West retired in 1998, after 42 years at Dahlgren, but didn’t slow down even after suffering a stroke only five months after retiring. She worked on rebuilding her strength and recovering her lost mobility by taking classes at a local YMCA with her husband. She was motivated by her big goal which was to finish her remote Ph.D. program in Public Administration, which she received from Virginia Tech in 2018.