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Gladys West, Mathematician Who Helped Develop GPS Technology, Inducted Into Air Force Hall of Fame

Gladys West, a pivotal figure in the development of the Global Positioning System, or GPS, just received one of the U.S. Air Force’s highest honors.

Earlier this month, officials inducted West, 87, into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame for her decades of work and contributions to the branch’s Space Command program. A ceremony was held in her honor at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., according to First Coast News.

Gladys West

Gladys West (right) also participated in a groundbreaking astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. (Photo by Adrian Cadiz)

As a mathematician, West was among the “hidden figures” who did computing for the U.S. military in the 1950’s and ’60s, an era pre-dating high-powered electronic systems. She joined the Naval Support Facility in Dahlgren, Va., in 1956, where she was just one of four African-American employees.

“Her story is amazing,” Gwen James, a fellow member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, told The Associated Press earlier this year. “GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever. There is not a segment of this global society — military, auto industry, cellphone industry, social media, parents, NASA, etc. — that does not utilize the Global Positioning System.”

West is not only credited with helping develop GPS technology during her 42-year career, but was also part of a groundbreaking astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s movement relative to Neptune, the Patrick Air Force Base website states.

But wait, there’s more. During the ’70s and 80’s, West spent her time utilizing a complex series of algorithms used to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that affect Earth’s shape and programmed an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer, which made “refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model” for what would become the GPS Orbit, according to the website.

West said she had no idea her time spent recording satellite locations would impact so many people years later. To her, she was just doing her job.

“When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ ” she told the Free Lance-Star. “You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’ ”

West retired from the military in 1998, but her pursuit for knowledge didn’t stop there. She went on to earn her Doctorate through a remote degree program with Virginia Tech in 2018.

As reported by the Washington Informer, the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Award honors the leaders of the early years of the Air Force Space program, as well as “those who transformed the cutting edge of technology into operational systems, and those who dedicated their lives to exploring space in support of our national security concerns.”

Dr. West is more than deserving of the honor.

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