Celebrating Black History Month: Gladys West and GPS

Posted: February 16, 2024

What do you and a big federal agency like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have in common? Well, besides a shared interest in the science of our planet, you can share in saying a hearty ‘thank you!’ to Dr. Gladys West! 

Virginian Gladys West is a mathematician whose contributions to GPS technology are used everyday. You might access GPS to direct you to the hot new restaurant in town, and NOAA uses GPS to produce Science On a Sphere® programs which we present at the Science Museum of Virginia! 

Science Museum of Virginia Cottrell Theater

Born in Sutherland in 1930, West received her bachelors and masters degrees in mathematics before working as a mathematician for the United States Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, VA. At the time, she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees. In 1956, while working on the base, she met Ira V. West, another black mathematician who later became her husband. While revered for her ability to solve complex mathematical equations by hand, eventually West programmed computers to do the equations for her. Talk about working smarter, not harder!

In 1978, West was named project manager of Seasat, a satellite designed to provide data on oceanographic conditions. This first-of-its-kind project demonstrated how satellites could be useful for observing oceanographic data. After tackling the sea, scientists moved on land. 

Out of West’s work on Seasat came GEOSAT, a satellite programmed to create computer models of Earth’s surface. West and her team programmed the computers to take into account gravity, tides and other forces. The output was a program that could precisely calculate the orbit of satellites around our planet. With these calculations, scientists developed a geoid, a model for the exact shape of the Earth. It is this model, and later updates, that allows the GPS system to make accurate calculations of any place on the globe!

And even after all those accomplishments, this life-long learner wasn’t done. In 2000 at age 70, she earned her PhD from Virginia Tech. 

So, say it with us … thank you, Dr. West! You can see Gladys’ work in action during a Science on a Sphere demonstration. With hundreds of data sets available, SOS demos focus on Earth sciences and solar system exploration, showcasing the atmosphere, oceans and land of our changing planet. These demos occur daily in the Cottrell Theater on Level 1.