I was on Google Maps, searching for the time needed to go to some grocery store that has some item I can’t find in the ones near my house (the joy of not having a car), and when I did a right-click on my destination I saw weird numbers. I assumed it is the GPS coordinate, but I don’t even know. Obviously, as you are here, you know I became curious about the topic (It’s the same with every one of my introductions, I need to change things up!).
Who invented the GPS?
First of all, what does GPS stand for? Global Positioning System. And according to Merriam-Webster, here is the definition:
a navigational system using satellite signals to fix the location of a radio receiver on or above the earth’s surface.
And now, who is the person we can credit for the invention of the GPS, you may ask? The answer is a bit complicated as it was the culmination of the works of multiple scientists through the years, and some of them had a hard time getting recognized for it.
Project 621B: GPS’s Ancestor
In 1963, Colonel Francis X. Kane was tasked with leading a classified project known as 621B, which aimed to create a space-based navigation system. The project laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Colonel Kane assembled a team of Air Force engineers and Aerospace corporation contractors in Los Angeles to develop the engineering concept for this innovative system. Their work during Phase I of the project established the concept of a space-based system capable of providing global, all-weather, and continuous 3-dimensional positioning. The team recognized the need for a minimum of 24 satellites, positioned at an altitude of 10,000 nautical miles, and powered by hybrid solar and battery energy sources.
Between 1964 and 1966, several key figures made notable contributions to GPS development. Phil Diamond, Peter W. Soule, James B. Woodford, Alfred Bogen, Richard Dutcher, Howard F. Marx, and Hideyoshi Nakamura, among others, brought their expertise to the table. They proposed the concept of using signals from four satellites to calculate range measurements for aircraft, laying the operational foundation for GPS as we know it today.
Parallel advancements in the 1960s included the development of atomic clocks and the Timation system. Atomic clocks, pioneered by the Naval Research Laboratory, significantly improved the accuracy and coverage of satellite-based navigation. Dr. Ivan Getting, President of The Aerospace Corporation, envisioned an advanced satellite navigation system akin to “lighthouses in the sky.” His team’s 621-B concept recommendations and Getting’s foresight shaped the direction of the project.
Under Phase II of Project 621B, led by Colonel Kane and a team from Thompson Ramo Wooldridge Inc. (TRW), the concept of operations for GPS was refined, and engineering designs for multiple systems were initiated. This phase included test programs for receivers, satellite control, and operations, and the preliminary design of GPS satellites. The collaborative efforts of TRW and other key players solidified the technical aspects of GPS, paving the way for its practical implementation.
Navstar: The First GPS Satellites
In 1973, a significant synthesis of ideas occurred when Colonel Bradford Parkinson spearheaded the development of a satellite navigation program that combined the best aspects of TRANSIT, Timation, and Project 621B. Named Navstar, this program received Defense Department approval for a passive one-way ranging system using 24 satellites equipped with atomic clocks. The first Block I developmental Navstar/GPS satellite was launched in February 1978, followed by additional demonstration satellites in the early 1980s. These achievements marked crucial milestones in the evolution of GPS.
While the groundwork for GPS was being laid, Gladys West, a brilliant mathematician, made significant contributions in the field of satellite technology. In 1978, West was appointed project manager of Seasat, an experimental ocean surveillance satellite. Seasat pioneered the use of satellites for gathering valuable oceanographic data, including wave height, water temperature, currents, winds, icebergs, and coastal characteristics. It demonstrated the immense potential of satellite-based observations in understanding Earth’s oceans.
Precise Orbit Calculations Building upon her work on Seasat, West and her team embarked on the GEOSAT project. By harnessing the power of computers and accounting for gravity, tides, and other forces acting on Earth’s surface, they developed a program that could precisely calculate satellite orbits. These calculations were instrumental in determining the model for the exact shape of Earth, known as the geoid. The geoid model, refined over time, played a crucial role in enabling GPS to accurately calculate positions anywhere on the planet.
GPS for the People
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan authorized the use of GPS by civilian commercial airlines, recognizing its potential to enhance navigation and safety in air travel. As GPS technology continued to improve throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it became more accessible to the public.
However, initially, the civilian signal was intentionally degraded under a policy known as Selective Availability. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a directive to remove Selective Availability, granting civilians the same accuracy enjoyed by the military.
By 1993, the full constellation of 24 GPS satellites became operational, providing worldwide coverage and exceptional positioning accuracy. Selective Availability, which intentionally degraded the GPS signal for civilian use, was turned off in 2000, enabling civilians to access the same level of accuracy as the military.
Who Got Credited for the Invention of the GPS?
There were a lot of people who worked on multiple projects that led to a fully functioning GPS. Here are the ones whose names are in the books:
- Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson were awarded the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize (2003) The first for improving upon the World War II land-based radio system known as LORAN, the second for the conception of the satellite-based system in the early 1960s and his collaboration with the U.S. Air Force in its development.
- Roger L. Easton received this National Medal of Technology (February 13, 2006), an award for his contributions to GPS technology.
- Francis X. Kane and Gladys West were inducted into the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame (respectively in 2010 and in 2018), him for his role in space technology development and the engineering design concept of GPS as part of Project 621B, her for her work on an accurate geodetic Earth model that played a crucial role in determining the orbit of the GPS constellation.