West was born at a time when pilots navigated by subsequent railroad tracks from town to city, usually landing in a subject to inquire the farmer for instructions. The arrival of VOR stations improved matters, but tuning in two of people, centering the needles, and drawing traces on a chart when also traveling the plane by no means got easy. West, and her colleagues and collaborators, mounted all of that. Navigation is a breeze these times, thanks to low-cost GPS receivers in our cellphones, electronic tablets, and plane. We only will need to look for the tiny airplane icon to see our place and the closest airport.
We have a lot of individuals to thank for this increased flight security and convenience, from the engineers and rocket scientists who designed the GPS satellites and the rockets to start them, to the mathematicians who figured out how the procedure would operate. West was a crucial enabler of the technology, many thanks to her mathematical and computer programming expertise.
From farm to college
Gladys West (née Gladys Brown) was born on the loved ones farm south of Richmond, Virginia, in 1930, the similar year as Neil Armstrong. When not in university, she labored on the farm, like most children of the Depression. Lots of of her classmates would go no even more, dwelling out their life as farmers or operating at the nearby tobacco manufacturing facility. For West, college made available her a path to a improved vocation.
“I was likely get an education and I was likely to get out of there. I was not likely to be caught there all my daily life,” claimed West. She strike the textbooks, getting to be valedictorian of her high school graduating class and earning a scholarship to Virginia Condition College, a traditionally Black faculty that is now Virginia Point out University.
After there, she figured out that even though she had been at the leading of her rural substantial university class, she now experienced to operate challenging to preserve up with pupils from town faculties. Following graduating with a bachelor’s diploma in mathematics in 1952, she taught math while earning a master’s degree in 1955.
Placing figures to get the job done
In 1956, West was hired as a mathematician by the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia, about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C. There, her calculations supported the growth of new weapons, this sort of as ballistic missiles. At first, the mathematicians solved sophisticated equations by hand, but they quickly transitioned to programming computers to fix extended and advanced difficulties. West became a computer system programmer and managed systems that analyzed satellite details. In the 1960s, she worked on an astronomical examine that determined the actions of Pluto in relation to Neptune.
Seeking down on Earth
By 1978, West was project supervisor of Seasat, a satellite built to evaluate ocean wave height, h2o temperature, currents, winds, and icebergs. It was the to start with task to display that satellites could gather oceanographic details.
Subsequent arrived GEOSAT, a satellite that collected info to develop computer system styles of the Earth’s shape. To maximize the precision of the computer system products, West utilized complicated algorithms to account for various forces that distort the Earth— such as its gravity, rotation, and tides, as well as the fact that the Earth is not beautifully spherical—especially the ever-shifting ocean surfaces. West and her workforce developed a software to precisely calculate satellite orbits, which permitted exact position calculations. These laptop styles grew to become the basis for GPS.
Although at Dahlgren, she met fellow mathematician and her upcoming partner, Ira West. They married in 1957 and experienced a few youngsters.
Today, GPS is a network of 24 orbiting satellites (24 is the bare minimum extras are orbiting as backups) that can pinpoint a GPS receiver’s site to an precision of about 15 toes, applying the average smartphone. To do this, just about every satellite must know its position in area and the exact time, determined by an on-board atomic clock. The satellites transmit their position and time to GPS receivers on Earth, which determine the length to the satellite by measuring the time the signal took to get there. With signals from four satellites, a GPS receiver can triangulate its place.
Like the NASA mathematicians depicted in the e-book and film Hidden Figures, West is typically included as one particular whose scientific contributions went unrecognized at the time. Even so, in 2018, she was finally regarded for her contribution to GPS improvement by the Virginia Common Assembly and inducted into the U.S. Air Drive Area and Missile Pioneers Corridor of Fame. At the induction ceremony, the commander mentioned, “She rose via the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy, and contributed to the precision of GPS and the measurement of satellite details. As Gladys West started off her profession as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she probably had no idea that her get the job done would impact the planet for many years to come.”
West claimed of herself, “When you’re functioning each working day, you are not thinking, ‘What impression is this going to have on the environment?’ You might be thinking, ‘I’ve bought to get this suitable.’”
Considering the fact that my minor airplane icon never ever fails me, I guess she did.
I’ll get a folding map
Even though she was instrumental in producing GPS, West nevertheless prefers to use a paper map.
“I am a doer, hands-on variety of man or woman. If I can see the road and see where it turns and see the place it went, I am far more positive.”