She wasn’t one of the “Hidden Figures” immortalized in the award-winning 2016 film, but mathematician Dr. Gladys West was nonetheless a pioneer in her field and an innovator in all our lives due to her contributions to the invention of what we now know as global positioning systems or GPS.
And now, the trailblazer has been inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. Washington, D.C.’s WUSA9 reports that a special ceremony was held in West’s honor at the Pentagon on Dec. 6, bestowing one of the Air Force’s Space Command’s highest honors upon the 87-year-old pioneer. As a news release from the Air Force Space Command Public Affairs office read:
Dr. Gladys West is among a small group of women who did computing for the U.S. military in the era before electronic systems. Hired in 1956 as a mathematician at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, she participated in a path-breaking, award-winning astronomical study that proved, during the early 1960s, the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Thereafter, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.
And while she wasn’t portrayed as a main character, West was among the small group of women depicted in Hidden Figures who manually executed computing for the U.S. military and space program, both prior to and after their widespread adoption of electronic systems. However, as your Uber or Lyft driver can likely attest, the usefulness of West’s efforts continue to resonate all the way down here on Earth.