A mathematician, Gladys West is recognized for making key contributions to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). In recent years, she has received greater recognition for her contributions to creating a truly transformative technology, including induction into the United States Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018 and a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born in 1930 to a poor farming family in Virginia, Gladys West was a gifted and driven student, going from a one-room schoolhouse in rural Virginia to obtain multiple degrees. After completing graduate school, West began a long career at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in 1956. One of only four black employees, West was initially hired to work on programing and coding for the new computer systems that the Navy had recently adopted. West would work at Dahlgren for forty-two years on a variety of consequential projects.
Building a Trusted Future
As a project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, which launched the first satellite capable of monitoring the oceans, West programed the naval base’s sophisticated computer to calculate an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model using a variety of complex algorithms to account for gravitational, tidal, and other forces that can distort the Earth’s shape. West’s satellite geodesy models would eventually form the basis of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
West was also part of an important 1960s astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.
I felt proud of myself as a woman, knowing that I can do what I can do. But as a black woman, that’s another level where you have to prove to a society that hasn’t accepted you for what you are. What I did was keep trying to prove that I was as good as you are. There is no difference in the work we can do.