Dr. Gladys West: Creating Building Blocks for the GPS

Growing up in racially segregated Virginia, Dr. West graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and went to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) on a full scholarship. She received her Master’s in mathematics in 1955 and was hired as a mathematician by the U.S. Naval Proving Ground, a weapons laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia. She was their fourth-ever Black employee.


Photo courtesy of The Guardian

She was respected for her ability to solve extremely complex math problems, eventually programming computers to do it for her, and worked on an award-winning study on Plutos’ movement in relation to Neptune. After receiving immense praise for her work, she was made project manager of the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first-ever satellite to monitor the oceans. On this project, she programmed a computer to provide calculations for Earth’s surface, a major building block to create the GPS as we know it today.


Dr. West received another Master’s degree while working on the base, and earned her Ph.D. in 2000, at the age of 70, after recovering from a stroke. Like many others, Dr. West did not receive proper recognition for her work until she was 88 years old, due to her race and gender. In 2018, she was named one of British Broadcasting Corporation’s 100 Women of 2018, was officially inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, and finally was formally recognized for her contributions by the Virginia General Assembly.


Today, Dr. West prefers to use paper maps.