Gladys West – NASA engineer, Mother of GPS

posted in: History Makers | 1

Did you know… Gladys West?
We don’t usually talk about living people here, but Gladys West is so amazing that we depart from our usual practice to celebrate the achievements of this great African American woman.
She was born Gladys Brown, in 1930 or 1931 – records from that era aren’t always precise. (My own aunt found out she was a year older than she thought, born about the same time). Her parents were poor sharecroppers, picking tobacco, corn, and other agricultural products in Dinwiddle, Virginia, south of Petersburg and Richmond. Gladys saw the hard life her parents lived, and didn’t want to do that.
“I needed an education to get out,” she says. So she worked hard and studied – finished high school first in her class. She seemed to have a special talent for mathematics, and an analytical turn of mind.
She earned a full scholarship to Virginia State College, and again earned top marks, graduating with a bachelor’s in mathematics. She taught school in Sussex County for two years, and then returned to school, earning a master’s, and then a PhD from Virginia Tech.

Gladys was one of four African Americans hired at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, and only the second African American woman to work there. One other African American working there was Ira West, and the two got to know one another, marrying in 1957. Dahlgren is on the Potomac River, east of Fredericksburg.

Gladys began working with satellite data, maps, and the Center’s supercomputers. These were early days for computing, and computers filled football field sized rooms with less power than you have on your smart phone.
This was early days for programming, also– FORTRAN II appeared in 1958, making it possible to code algorithms in a high level language rather than machine instructions. The original impetus for her work was more accurate delivery of bombs and ICBMs, but today it is used almost universally for a much less lethal purpose – the Global Positioning system, which helps your smart phone map a route to unfamiliar locations, and can determine your location on the globe to an accuracy of about ten feet.

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, Neiman recommended West for commendation. West 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.
In 1986, West published “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter”, a 60-page illustrated guide. The Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC) guide was published to explain how to increase the accuracy of the estimation of “geoid heights and vertical deflection”, topics of satellite geodesy. This was achieved by processing the data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite which went into orbit on 12 March 1984. She worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, retiring in 1998. Her contributions to the GPS system went largely unnoticed and unheralded by those outside the military and NASA, until she submitted a short biography to her college sorority for an alumni function.

The GPS project, using Gladys’s work, started in 1975, and became operational in 1995. Gladys uses GPS like everyone else, but trusts paper maps and her own faculties more, saying, “I know my equations are right, what they’re using, but the data points could be off.”
West was selected by the BBC as part of their 2018 100 Women. She was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the Air Force Space Command’s highest honours. She was described as one of the pioneering hidden figures who did essential mathematical computing for the United States Armed Forces before electronic systems.

You can read her 1986 paper here:

Today Gladys lives in King George County, Virginia, with her husband Ira. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

From my Facebook archives

  1. Davida Chazan

    Yes, but… if it hadn’t been for Hedy Lamarr’s frequency-hopping technology, she might never have achieved this.

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