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GPS How It All Started

Aug 17, 2007
Twelve billion US dollars.

That was the amount spent by the American government for its global position system or GPS for short. Satellites are expensive, but when you seriously think about what a GPS can accomplish, it may well be worth every single cent.

The United States Department of Defense no doubt had the proper rationale for inventing the GPS. In fact, in light of recent events that have developed as a result of 9/11, military and defense strategists are probably heaping praise on the DOD for its GPS efforts. GPS has turned out to be a very useful tool in their strategies to protect the country and its allies from potential disaster.

They also have Ivan Getting to thank.

GPS: how it started

Funny how Ivan Getting's name almost fits in with the primary function of GPS - "getting location." GPS is a tracking tool, if you will, and for it to remain in optimal working order, a budget of $400 million a year is required to monitor the satellites so they don't fall out of orbit, so to speak. The budget is also allocated to replace aging satellites.

Ivan Getting was born in New York City in 1912. He enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute Technology with an Edison scholarship and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1933. After MIT, he went on to pursue his Master's Degree as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

Dr. Getting obtained his Doctorate in Astrophysics in 1935 - a rare accomplishment in those days.

Less than 20 years later, Dr. Getting joined Raytheon Corporation as Vice President for Engineering and Research. When the Air Force announced a need for a guidance system to be used in conjunction with an ICBM that would achieve mobility by traveling for railroad use, Raytheon came up with a three-dimensional, time-difference-of-arrival position-finding system, the first of its kind at the time. It is a technique that represented one of the most sophisticated technologies in the world, since the concepts that were integrated into its design served as the stepping stones for the development of the global position system - GPS.

Dr. Getting directed aerospace engineers and scientists to evaluate satellite use - the core for a navigational system for rapidly-moving vehicles based on three dimensions. This eventually led to the concept utilized for the design of GPS.

In 1993, the military declared that GPS was now a fully operational world utility - an essential component for modern navigation on land, water and air. Its use extended to map making and land surveying. Today's uses for GPS, however, go beyond these preliminary applications.

As to be expected with technologies of this magnitude, GPS underwent major improvement in the year 2000, when the Wide-Area Augmentation System (WAAS) was employed to increase the accuracy of signals emanating from GPS. This accuracy is made possible by one of many techniques known as the differential GPS, or DGPS.

When the United States Department of Defense developed the system, it was called NAVSTAR GPS - the acronym for Navigation Signal Timing and Ranging Global Positioning System.

But it wasn't just Ivan Getting

Let's give credit where it's due. Ivan Getting's impressive role in the establishment of GPS - now a public good - cannot be denied. However, for several decades, people have been trying to figure out the means to pinpoint their exact location on earth. People no longer follow stars to find their way as they did in biblical times; these days, satellites can do that much more effectively.

GPS has come a long way. From the original designers of the think tank group within the United States Navy, GPS has now "arrived" with its 24 satellites.

Remember the Sputnik program back in the 1960's?

When Sputnik was launched, the United States Navy had actually run two programs that were said to be GPS's predecessors. Transit was the name given to the first functional satellite-based navigation system, developed by Richard Kirschner in 1964. Those programs had seven satellites, and it relied on radio signals.

In 1967, the second satellite navigation system, Timation was born. It was an improvement over Transit; one innovation was an atomic clock integrated into its design.

In 1973, the US Navy and US Air Force eventually combined efforts to form the Navigation Technology Program, which became Navigation System and Ranging or NAVSTAR. The first four satellites were launched five years after that joint effort.

Based on its history, therefore, the raison-d'Ítre of GPS was purely military in nature. Today, its uses encompass certain activities engaged in by the private sector. It must be mentioned, however, that for reasons of national security, the system used by the public is not as accurate as the one used by the military.
About the Author
Hunter Crowell is a researcher, marketer, a geocacher, and the creator of GPS Navigation, a web site setup to help people find useful and accurate information related to global positioning systems. Visit his site at http://www.GPS-explained.info
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