Bernie Hayes

Ignoring the lives and legacies of African Americans is disgraceful. Most people know the story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Gobels Johnson, black women depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures.” They crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as American heroes.  

But there is another story hardly ever told – a bit of history and facts that affects our daily lives in one way or another.

On Sunday, December 1, Lee Cowan, hosting CBS Sunday Morning, presented “Preparing the next generation of GPS.” The feature stated: “Originally developed by the U.S. military, the Global Positioning System (GPS) as we now know it became operational in 1995 and has since become vital to nearly every facet of modern life, from our smartphones to the internet and the electrical grid.”

It was an enlightening account of how we use GPS and the way the U.S. Air Force, using the system, monitors the world. It showed the way it was developed and the reasons for its development. It toured some of the facilities and highlighted some of the individuals working to keep us safe. But not one African American was featured or shown.

This is disturbing to me because on my television program I recently showcased Gladys Mae West, an African-American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into GPS.

Decades after she helped develop GPS technology, 87-year-old Gladys West has received one of the U.S. Air Force space program's highest distinction.

West was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. recently. The honor was given in recognition of the work she did as one of the agency's "human computers" in the era predating high-powered data processors. When West joined the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia in 1956, she was one of just four black employees, two of whom were men. One of those men, Ira West, would later become her husband.

Early in her career, West contributed to an astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto's rotation relative to Neptune. From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, she programmed a computer to come up with a super-accurate model of the Earth, accounting for variations in the planet's shape caused by gravitational, tidal, and other forces. This model laid the groundwork for the GPS that is ubiquitous in the military, smartphones, and cars today.

West retired from the military in 1998, but she hasn't stopped her pursuit of knowledge. In 2018, she completed her Ph.D. through a remote program with Virginia Tech.

West, a Richmond native and the daughter of field laborers, still finds it hard to fathom how her technology has evolved into a widely known and useful system. “When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’”

Please watch the Bernie Hayes TV program Saturday night at 10 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 5:30 p.m. on NLEC-TV Ch. 24.2. I can be reached by fax at (314) 837-3369, on e-mail at berhay@swbell.net or on Twitter @berhay.

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