A Step Towards GPS was Taken 60 Years Ago Today

 

Sixty years ago my father explored the state of atomic clocks. He called his Navsat Timation for TIMe navigATION. It required putting synchronized clocks in satellites to provide a receiver with its position. The clocks weren’t good enough so he pushed for a 2+ order of magnitude improvement over the next decade or so. The result of this process is GPS. Today, false stories about its origin are rife and I thought people would be interested in seeing an important document on the road to modern Navsats.

Last September, two false GPS anniversaries were widely accepted on Twitter/X. The 40th anniversary of the shooting down of KAL 007 was credited with opening up the system to civilian use. It was always open to civilians. Brad Parkinson’s story that he and twelve other people created GPS over Labor Day 1973 was widely accepted (with a Federalist article supporting this). That’s also not correct. Gladys West is widely credited with inventing a system she did not work on. Now I know why historians give credence to primary source materials.

Published in Science & Technology
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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Thanks Richard. Great reporting.

    You are a true science journalist.

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Thanks Richard. Great reporting.

    You are a true science journalist.

    That’s what I came to Ricochet for: genuine expertise I would have had trouble running across in the world of mainstream media. 

    • #2
  3. Chowderhead Coolidge
    Chowderhead
    @Podunk

    Fantastic! Congratulations to you and your family. 

    • #3
  4. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Here’s an excellent source for the history of the Naval Research Lab’s involvement in space including GPS.  https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/trecms/pdf/AD1170262.pdf

    • #4
  5. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    • #5
  6. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    • #6
  7. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    • #7
  8. JdwSparty Member
    JdwSparty
    @JdwSparty

    I worked on the GPS program from roughly 1978 to 1982 in San Diego as a junior software engineer.  I started at General Dynamics; when IBM won the full-scale development contract I moved to a small company that was put in charge of rehosting the GPS Master Control Station (MCS) software from (IIRC) a Control Data Corporation computer to an IBM System 360 computer.  

    Back when I was working on it,

    1. the software was sized to hold data on just six satellites
    2. the MCS was located at Vandenberg AFB, north of Lompoc, CA
    3. there were 4 monitoring stations: Vandenberg (VMS), Guam (GMS), Alaska (AMS) and Hawaii (HMS)

    This was back in the day of Hollerith punch cards.  “Structured Software Design” was just starting to become a thing, and Object Oriented Design; Scrum; Agile development techniques were ‘way in the future.   Software builds could take several hours.  They were installed on the host machines via magnetic tape.

    A great deal of the code had already been written by the time I started. I was mostly doing “bug fixes” to the code that predicted each satellite’s “ephemeris” for the next couple of days; code that uploaded the predicted ephemeris data to the satellite; code that managed the on-board memory of the satellite; and code that would generate commands to the satellite.  (I think that one of the commands that I worked on had to do with something called a “C-Field Adjustment”, which was a way to tweak the behavior of the satellite’s atomic clock.) The last upgrade that I worked on had to do with a so-called Denial of Accuracy feature.

    It has been very gratifying to me over the years to know that I was a contributor to such an important system.

    • #8
  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    JdwSparty (View Comment):

    I worked on the GPS program from roughly 1978 to 1982 in San Diego as a junior software engineer. I started at General Dynamics; when IBM won the full-scale development contract I moved to a small company that was put in charge of rehosting the GPS Master Control Station (MCS) software from (IIRC) a Control Data Corporation computer to an IBM System 360 computer.

    Back when I was working on it,

    1. the software was sized to hold data on just six satellites
    2. the MCS was located at Vandenberg AFB, north of Lompoc, CA
    3. there were 4 monitoring stations: Vandenberg (VMS), Guam (GMS), Alaska (AMS) and Hawaii (HMS)

    This was back in the day of Hollerith punch cards. “Structured Software Design” was just starting to become a thing, and Object Oriented Design; Scrum; Agile development techniques were ‘way in the future. Software builds could take several hours. They were installed on the host machines via magnetic tape.

    A great deal of the code had already been written by the time I started. I was mostly doing “bug fixes” to the code that predicted each satellite’s “ephemeris” for the next couple of days; code that uploaded the predicted ephemeris data to the satellite; code that managed the on-board memory of the satellite; and code that would generate commands to the satellite. (I think that one of the commands that I worked on had to do with something called a “C-Field Adjustment”, which was a way to tweak the behavior of the satellite’s atomic clock.) The last upgrade that I worked on had to do with a so-called Denial of Accuracy feature.

    It has been very gratifying to me over the years to know that I was a contributor to such an important system.

    Kool

    • #9
  10. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    JdwSparty (View Comment):

    I worked on the GPS program from roughly 1978 to 1982 in San Diego as a junior software engineer. I started at General Dynamics; when IBM won the full-scale development contract I moved to a small company that was put in charge of rehosting the GPS Master Control Station (MCS) software from (IIRC) a Control Data Corporation computer to an IBM System 360 computer.

    Back when I was working on it,

    1. the software was sized to hold data on just six satellites
    2. the MCS was located at Vandenberg AFB, north of Lompoc, CA
    3. there were 4 monitoring stations: Vandenberg (VMS), Guam (GMS), Alaska (AMS) and Hawaii (HMS)

    This was back in the day of Hollerith punch cards. “Structured Software Design” was just starting to become a thing, and Object Oriented Design; Scrum; Agile development techniques were ‘way in the future. Software builds could take several hours. They were installed on the host machines via magnetic tape.

    A great deal of the code had already been written by the time I started. I was mostly doing “bug fixes” to the code that predicted each satellite’s “ephemeris” for the next couple of days; code that uploaded the predicted ephemeris data to the satellite; code that managed the on-board memory of the satellite; and code that would generate commands to the satellite. (I think that one of the commands that I worked on had to do with something called a “C-Field Adjustment”, which was a way to tweak the behavior of the satellite’s atomic clock.) The last upgrade that I worked on had to do with a so-called Denial of Accuracy feature.

    It has been very gratifying to me over the years to know that I was a contributor to such an important system.

    It’s great to hear from you! The first four Block 1 (test) satellites were launched in 1978. Two more were added in 1980. The next successful launch was in 1983.

    • #10
  11. JdwSparty Member
    JdwSparty
    @JdwSparty

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    JdwSparty (View Comment):

    I worked on the GPS program from roughly 1978 to 1982 in San Diego as a junior software engineer. I started at General Dynamics; when IBM won the full-scale development contract I moved to a small company that was put in charge of rehosting the GPS Master Control Station (MCS) software from (IIRC) a Control Data Corporation computer to an IBM System 360 computer.

    Back when I was working on it,

    1. the software was sized to hold data on just six satellites
    2. the MCS was located at Vandenberg AFB, north of Lompoc, CA
    3. there were 4 monitoring stations: Vandenberg (VMS), Guam (GMS), Alaska (AMS) and Hawaii (HMS)

    This was back in the day of Hollerith punch cards. “Structured Software Design” was just starting to become a thing, and Object Oriented Design; Scrum; Agile development techniques were ‘way in the future. Software builds could take several hours. They were installed on the host machines via magnetic tape.

    A great deal of the code had already been written by the time I started. I was mostly doing “bug fixes” to the code that predicted each satellite’s “ephemeris” for the next couple of days; code that uploaded the predicted ephemeris data to the satellite; code that managed the on-board memory of the satellite; and code that would generate commands to the satellite. (I think that one of the commands that I worked on had to do with something called a “C-Field Adjustment”, which was a way to tweak the behavior of the satellite’s atomic clock.) The last upgrade that I worked on had to do with a so-called Denial of Accuracy feature.

    It has been very gratifying to me over the years to know that I was a contributor to such an important system.

    It’s great to hear from you! The first four Block 1 (test) satellites were launched in 1978. Two more were added in 1980. The next successful launch was in 1983.

    My experience working on GPS convinced me that I could actually make a career out of being a Software Engineer.  Since  GPS I have worked for several major defense contractors.  I’m doing part-time consulting at present; I expect to retire completely in another year or so. 

    I may have some of the GPS documentation stashed away in a box in my garage, along with some old source code listings.  I’ll have to keep an eye out for that material the next time I digging around out there.

    One of my current co-workers was also on the GPS project the same time as me. Our careers have inter-twined several times over the years.  I met a young woman who was also working on GPS that eventually became my wife.  We are celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary later this summer.

    • #11
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    JdwSparty (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    JdwSparty (View Comment):

    I worked on the GPS program from roughly 1978 to 1982 in San Diego as a junior software engineer. I started at General Dynamics; when IBM won the full-scale development contract I moved to a small company that was put in charge of rehosting the GPS Master Control Station (MCS) software from (IIRC) a Control Data Corporation computer to an IBM System 360 computer.

    Back when I was working on it,

    1. the software was sized to hold data on just six satellites
    2. the MCS was located at Vandenberg AFB, north of Lompoc, CA
    3. there were 4 monitoring stations: Vandenberg (VMS), Guam (GMS), Alaska (AMS) and Hawaii (HMS)

    This was back in the day of Hollerith punch cards. “Structured Software Design” was just starting to become a thing, and Object Oriented Design; Scrum; Agile development techniques were ‘way in the future. Software builds could take several hours. They were installed on the host machines via magnetic tape.

    A great deal of the code had already been written by the time I started. I was mostly doing “bug fixes” to the code that predicted each satellite’s “ephemeris” for the next couple of days; code that uploaded the predicted ephemeris data to the satellite; code that managed the on-board memory of the satellite; and code that would generate commands to the satellite. (I think that one of the commands that I worked on had to do with something called a “C-Field Adjustment”, which was a way to tweak the behavior of the satellite’s atomic clock.) The last upgrade that I worked on had to do with a so-called Denial of Accuracy feature.

    It has been very gratifying to me over the years to know that I was a contributor to such an important system.

    It’s great to hear from you! The first four Block 1 (test) satellites were launched in 1978. Two more were added in 1980. The next successful launch was in 1983.

    My experience working on GPS convinced me that I could actually make a career out of being a Software Engineer. Since GPS I have worked for several major defense contractors. I’m doing part-time consulting at present; I expect to retire completely in another year or so.

    I may have some of the GPS documentation stashed away in a box in my garage, along with some old source code listings. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that material the next time I digging around out there.

    One of my current co-workers was also on the GPS project the same time as me. Our careers have inter-twined several times over the years. I met a young woman who was also working on GPS that eventually became my wife. We are celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary later this summer.

    That’s a wonderful story and and a wonderful life, JdwSp! That’s also a background that many at Ricochet will recognize: decades of software work, national defense when you could say that without jeering, and a marriage that anyone would envy. 

    • #12
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I’ve said this before about Richard’s eminently fair and historically accurate posts: he distinguishes between mere userpers like Parkinson, and sincere technological conservatives (with a small “c”) who understandably believed that complex devices like digital clocks were not yet ready to sustain the rigors of launch into orbit. They were wrong, but that wasn’t crazy.

    • #13
  14. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I’ve said this before about Richard’s eminently fair and historically accurate posts: he distinguishes between mere userpers like Parkinson, and sincere technological conservatives (with a small “c”) who understandably believed that complex devices like digital clocks were not yet ready to sustain the rigors of launch into orbit. They were wrong, but that wasn’t crazy.

    They turned out to be wrong, but their concerns might have also led to research and advancements being undertaken so that they would be wrong.  Which is what I also say about Y2K: many people who raised concerns were dismissed as “alarmists” and when it eventually did turn out to be mostly a nothing-burger, it was easy to forget that years of work went into dealing with the potential problems in advance, exactly because of those “alarmists.”

    My own experiences with Y2K remediation actually began in the 1980s, because one of the systems I dealt with involved mortgage contracts etc that extended out 20 years.  Which meant they already were having ending dates in the 2000s.

    • #14
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