Dr. Gladys West entered the world on October 27, 1930, and little did anyone know that her life would shape the course of modern navigation and lead to the invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Growing up on a farm, Gladys had a natural curiosity about the world around her. She excelled in her studies and showed an early aptitude for mathematics and science. Her determination and intellect were evident from an early age, but she faced numerous challenges in pursuing her education as opportunities for African-American women were limited in the segregated United States of the 1940s.
Nevertheless, Gladys refused to let obstacles stand in her way. She earned a full scholarship to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) and graduated with honors in mathematics. This accomplishment caught the attention of the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, where she was offered a job in 1956 as a mathematician.
Her work at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory set the stage for her groundbreaking contribution to the development of GPS. In the early 1960s, she joined a team of scientists and engineers tasked with improving satellite tracking accuracy. Gladys was assigned to work on a project called the “Project Apollo,” which aimed to predict the positions of satellites in space.
She met Ira V. West, another Black mathematician on the base and the couple eventually got married in 1957.
With a razor sharp mind and relentless dedication, Dr. West pushed the boundaries of technology and mathematics. She used complex algorithms and programming to process and analyze vast amounts of data, including the positions of stars and satellites. Her work was instrumental in refining the satellite Geodesy models, (the science of measuring and representing the geometry, gravity, and special orientation of the earth in 3D), which eventually formed the foundation of GPS.
Gladys West was admired for her ability to solve complex mathematical equations by hand. She eventually transitioned from solving equations herself to programming computers to do it for her.
West and her team created a program that could precisely calculate the orbits of satellites. These calculations made it possible to determine a model for the exact shape of Earth and added to her continuous work in fine tuning solutions that allowed the GPS system to make accurate calculations of any place on Earth.
Throughout the years, Gladys continued her pioneering work, never seeking recognition or acclaim. Despite facing discrimination and adversity, she remained steadfast in her pursuit of excellence, relying on her faith and love for mathematics to fuel her ambitions.
In the early 1970s, her contributions to satellite geodesy were recognized when she became the second Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from the Catholic University of America. But it wasn’t until much later that the world would fully understand the impact of her work.
In the 1990s, GPS technology became widely accessible for civilian use, revolutionizing navigation and transforming the way people interacted with the world. The United States military and civilian sectors alike relied on GPS for an array of applications, from navigation and mapping to disaster relief and scientific research.
It was during this period that the significance of Dr. Gladys West’s work came to light. Her models and calculations were at the core of GPS technology. Her dedication and intellect had played a vital role in creating a system that would forever change the way humans navigated and explored the planet.
In 1998 at age 68, she was still continuing to further her education, even after recovering from a stroke. She received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy Affairs from Virginia Polytechnic Institute at age 70.
Dr. West was considered another of history’s “hidden figures.” These individuals are often Black women, whose insightful contributions to science went unrecognized in their time because of their race or gender.
In 2018, at the age of 87, Dr. Gladys West was finally recognized for her groundbreaking work with an induction into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. The world was in awe of her genius and the legacy she had left for future generations.
She was named among the “Top 100 Women” by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2018. This designation honors women who have inspired others globally.
Dr. Gladys West’s story is a testament to the power of perseverance, determination, and the pursuit of knowledge. Her groundbreaking contributions to GPS technology have touched the lives of billions, and her impact on science and navigation will never be forgotten.