Gladys West is a hidden figure who is finally getting her shine for her tremendous contribution as a member of the team who developed the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the 1950s and 1960s, First Coast News reports.
It’s a little-known Black History tidbit that the 87-year-old has held close. Earlier this month, however, West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. In the ceremony held at the Pentagon, she was recognized for being a pioneer who helped invent the GPS.
West was a mathematician, hired at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in 1956, at a time women, especially Black women, were not held in high regard and Blacks as a whole still faced heavy discriminatory treatment.
West’s skillset was sought after because computing was done by good-old-fashioned calculating since the electronic systems didn’t exist in the 1950 and 60s.
During the early 1960s, West took part in an award-winning astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune, according to the Patrick Air Force Base website.
West was only one of four Blacks at the base in 1956. Her calculations and algorithms helped determine variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. Her work eventually led to developing satellites.
West 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 GPS, the website states.
GPS technology has become essential and infused in all kinds of devices like cell phones and cars.
“I was ecstatic,” West said. “I was able to come from Dinwiddie County and be able to work with some of the greatest scientists working on these projects.”
She married Ira West, a fellow mathematician a year later at the Naval facility, where she served for 42 years at the Navy base at Dahlgren.
West was modest about her achievements too.
When she was preparing to attend a sorority event, she prepared her bio and mentioned in a single line that she was part of history as a member of the team that developed the GPS.
She shocked her Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorors too, especially Gwen James who said she’s has known West for 15 years but didn’t know that Black History fact.
“GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever,” James said. “There is not a segment of this global society—military, auto industry, cell phone industry, social media, parents, NASA, etc.—that does not utilize the Global Positioning System.”
“I think her story is amazing,” James added.
Unable to attend the Aug 2018 induction ceremony, Dr. Gladys West was honored at the Pentagon as one of the 2018 Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers for her contributions to the @usairforce space program. Read more about her incredible career: https://t.co/1b1L9OyANI pic.twitter.com/a4tnTYXOxn
— AF Space Command (@AFSpace) December 12, 2018