U.S. Air Force honours black woman who invented GPS

By Duncan Mlanjira

Dr. Gladys West, the black woman who invented the Global Positioning System (GPS) has finally received the recognition she deserves by being inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame by the United States Air Force during a ceremony held at the Pentagon on December 22.

According to balleralert.com, the now 87-year-old West began to work at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in 1956 where she was the second black woman ever to be employed. 

She was responsible for collecting data from satellites and that job is what eventually led to the development of GPS but she remained incognito for many years due partly because of her humble character.

Being inducted

Balleralert.com reports that in 1986, West published Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter, a 60-page illustrated guide, which was based off data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984. 

She is quoted as saying: “When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’”

In 2017, as balleralert.com reports, Captain Godfrey Weekes — the then-commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division — described the integral role West played in a Black History Month message when he wrote: “She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy (science that measures the size and shape of Earth) and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data. 

With her husband

“As Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come.”

According to Wikipedia, she was born Gladys Mae Brown in 1931 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, United States to a farming family in a community of sharecroppers.

After gaining a scholarship for achieving the first place in her high-school class, she studied mathematics at Virginia State College and after graduating she taught for around two years.

In 1956, Wikipedia reports, West began to work at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, where her supervisor Ralph Neiman recommended her as project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans.

In 1979, she was a programmer in the Dahlgren Division for large-scale computers and a project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data.

She worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, retiring in 1998 and her contributions to GPS were only uncovered when a member of West’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, read a short biography West had submitted for an alumni function.

The United States Air Force Hall of Fame induction is one of the Air Force Space Command’s highest honours.

Hollywood created a movie ‘Hidden Figures’, acted by Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group, that depicted her work as well as other prominent black women that West worked with who did essential mathematical computing for the United States Armed Forces before electronic systems.