[FPSPACE] GPS history (was: Weapons in space)

DwayneDay zirconic1 at earthlink.net
Sat Oct 16 20:16:30 EDT 2004

-----Original Message-----
From: Allen Thomson <thomsona at flash.net>
Sent: Oct 16, 2004 10:28 AM

> That reminds me--the current issue of Quest contains an excellent 
> interview with Dr. Bradford Parkinson (USAF Lt. Col. Retired) who was one 
> of the fathers of the US GPS system.  I imagine that many people may have 
> no interest in this, but I think it's a great interview because it sheds 
> light on a subject that I don't think has gotten any attention before. 
> Although it has some technical history, what I found most interesting is 
> that Parkinson discussed the bureaucratic history of GPS.

>FWIW, the Spring, 1995 issue of Navigation (ISSN 0028-1522) has a 56 page 
article on the history of satellite navigation by Parkinson and three 

>"A History of Satellite Navigation" by Bradford W. Parkinson, Thomas 
Stansell, Ronald Beard and Konstantine Gromov

Thanks, I will have to look for that.

When it comes to the history of developing a technical system, one must consider not only the technology developments, but also the social factors that impacted that development.  The latter includes not only people, but bureaucracies (which are of course groups of people).

In the case of GPS, I have been told that the technical story is fairly complex and that one group that does not really get much credit is the National Security Agency, or NSA.  Someone told me once that the NSA people who worked on GPS made some important contributions.  Whether these were merely cryptological, or also in some of the basic signal and frequency choices, I don't know.

But the social aspects are also important to explore.  From what I understand, GPS actually got its budget zeroed-out several times during the early 1980s.  I don't know why this happened.  Was the Air Force serious about killing it?  Or did GPS become what is often called a "golden goose" program?  (Note: there are several other euphemisms for this kind of budget strategy.  Sometimes it is called the "Washington Monument strategy," whereby somebody says that if you cut our budget, we will have no alternative but to close down the Washington Monument.  In other words, this is a very cynical move where a government agency threatens to kill something that is very popular in order to get the money that they want.  They never threaten to kill something unpopular.  The magazine National Lampoon once did a classic take on this when they put a dog on their cover with a gun pointed at its head and the title "Buy this magazine or we shoot this dog.")  

Around this same time, the US Navy reportedly had a habit of threatening to cut the Trident submarine program because they "did not have enough money" in their budget.  Congress loved Trident submarines, so the Navy would say that because they were $1 billion short in their budget, they had to kill the Trident submarine, and Congress would then give them $1 billion to keep the Trident.  Of course, the Navy never really threatened to cut something else, like destroyers or minelayers or things like that.  So GPS may have been a case where the US Air Force threatened to kill the program due to "lack of money" confident that Congress would give them extra money.

However, someone once told me that the Air Force actually had some legitimate reasons to not be terribly enthusiastic about GPS in the early 1980s.  One problem was that GPS could be jammed.  I don't believe that there is any evidence that it actually _has_ been jammed in recent conflicts, but it is supposedly pretty easy to do (although less easy now than in the past).  The USAF was concerned that if they had to fight a technically savvy opponent in central Europe (the Red Army), they did not want their aircraft to rely upon a navigation system that could be easily jammed.  They had also spent a lot of money on inertial navigation systems for their aircraft, and because they had already sunk this money into navigation systems, they did not see much reason to spend even more money on another, potentially vulnerable, navigation system.

But I don't know this all for a fact, which is why I sure wish somebody would get out there and write a book about all of this, focusing on both the techies building the system, and the generals and colonels and congresscritters fighting over whether it should be built at all.  GPS now ranks as probably the third most important type of civilian-accessible space system ever built, behind comsats and metsats, and it deserves a good history.  (Then again, comsats and metsats also deserve good histories and don't get them either.)


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