Black History: Meet Dr. Gladys West, The Black Woman Behind GPS Technology
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Black History: Meet Dr. Gladys West, The Black Woman Behind GPS Technology

Dr. Gladys West is a mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and it wasn’t until 2018 that she would finally be recognized for her very important work that led to the development of one of the most necessary tools we use in our everyday lives — the GPS.

Hired at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1956, Dr. Gladys West was only one of four Black employees, and the second Black woman ever hired. West worked as a programmer and analyzed satellite data. She was able to use satellite data to put together altimeter models of the Earth’s shape with extreme precision. She was then recommended to work as the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans.

Through the mid-70s and 80s, Dr. West programmed an IBM computer to provide extremely precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth, a geoid, optimized for what eventually became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.

Not only was Dr. West’s technology the most instrumental in the creation of the GPS, there would be no GPS without Dr. West.

Dr. West retired in 1998 after working at Dahlgren for 42 years. A true hidden figure, her contributions to the GPS were only rediscovered when a member of West’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority read a biography West submitted for an alumni function.

On 21 February 2018, the Virginia General Assembly finally recognized Dr. Gladys West for her contributions with a “center aisle ceremony.” In December 2018, she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.

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