History of GPS
GPS has its origins in the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite. While the launch was a Cold War setback for the U.S., it ultimately led to U.S. researchers discovering that Sputnik's orbit could be accurately tracked from its radio transmissions using ground-receiving stations, a discovery that fostered government and private research and development programs in satellite technology within the United States. Different programs from the 1950s and 1960s eventually merged in 1973 to form the modern GPS program.
In the early 1970s, the Department of Defense used experiments the U.S. Navy had conducted in the mid-1960s with satellite navigation to develop its own proposed navigation system. DOD launched its first Navigation System with Timing and Ranging, or NAVSTAR, satellite in 1978. The 24 satellite system became fully operational in 1993, and attained full operational capability in 1995.
But even before reaching its full capability, GPS was used in military operations. Desert Shield, and later Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, would mark the first time military forces used GPS technology in a combat situation. U.S. and coalition air forces quickly eliminated Iraq's command and control capability and its air force's ability to harass coalition ground forces. When the ground offensive began in earnest on Feb. 24, 1991, the U.S. Army reported about 4,000 GPS receivers assigned to its forces. The Global Positioning System allowed these and allied units to advance in a featureless desert at night, during inclement weather, and to engage Iraqi units with a lethal accuracy unknown to that point.
GPS remained in the government domain until Korean Air Flight 007 mistakenly flew into Soviet restricted airspace and was subsequently shot down on Sept. 1, 1983, killing all 269 people on board. After the tragedy, President Ronald Reagan called for GPS technology to be made accessible to civilian enterprises at no cost to prevent similar events from happening again.
Though accessible for civilian purposes, GPS signals available to the public were intentionally degraded for national security reasons, termed Selective Availability, or SA, until President Bill Clinton directed the U.S government to discontinue its use of SA in May 2000. With SA deactivated, the quality of GPS signals for public use improved tenfold. Industry such as shipping, fishing and transportation began using GPS technology to enhance their operations. First responders and other services benefitted form the increased capability, while recreational navigation use also increased, such as driving, boating, and hiking, with private companies introducing personal GPS products. In February 2013, three industry leaders – Garmin, John Deere, and Trimble – would create the GPS Innovation Alliance, based in Washington, D.C., to help protect GPS as a national resource.
The National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing formed in December 2004. The committee, co-chaired by the secretaries of Defense and Transportation and responsible for managing GPS, ensures GPS remains equally influenced by military and civilian interests.
President George W. Bush announced the end to the procurement of SA-capable GPS satellites in 2007, effectively ensuring that high-quality GPS would remain available to support peaceful civil activities throughout the world.
To further reinforce global access to GPS, President Barack Obama signed the directive on U.S. National Space Policy in 2010 that included guidance on GPS use, stating that the U.S. shall, "provide continuous worldwide access, for peaceful civil use, to the Global Positioning System (GPS) and its government-provided augmentation, free of direct user charges."
Most recently, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on "Strengthening National Resilience through Responsible Use of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Services," in which he directed U.S. government agencies to protect critical infrastructure that relies on GPS.
Today, GPS is a multi-use, space-based radio navigation system owned by the U.S. government and operated by the United States Air Force to meet national defense, homeland security, civil, commercial and scientific needs. The ability to measure time intervals and frequencies extremely precisely is what allows GPS users to pinpoint their location any time, anywhere in the world. From the time stamp on ATM receipts, international banking, sports and recreation uses, search and rescue activities, humanitarian operations, and the ability of us all to make and receive cellphone calls and texts, GPS has become an integral part of our everyday activities.