I get lost all the time. And once upon a time, so did military transports. So the government used satellites to create GPS to help the military know where it is. And thus, I can get to the party … fashionably late.

What is GPS, exactly?

The Global Positioning System (GPS, y’all) has three segments: space, control, and user. The U.S. Air Force develops, maintains, and operates the first two segments.

The space segment is made up of 31 operational satellites. Of those, at least 24 are in operation at least 95 percent of the time. Each satellite circles the Earth twice daily. They transmit radio signals to users, which communicate an object’s position and time. Or my position and time.

The control segment is a worldwide system of monitor and control stations to maintain and track the satellites. These stations are located throughout the world—several are in the United States, but others are located in places like Ecuador, South Korea, and Bahrain. This is controlled at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

And what about the user segment, you ask? That’s the GPS receiver equipment (like the technology in our iPhones) that receives signals from the satellite constellation and uses that information to calculate our position and the local time.

Ok, but we didn’t create GPS to help me avoid traffic.

No. We did not. We did it because: Space. Which is the reason we do so many things.

In 1955, when the Eisenhower administration approved the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Project Vanguard: a plan to orbit a series of satellites. Three years later, when the Vanguard -1 satellite went into orbit, NRL scientists developed MINITRACK to keep an eye on it.

On to the interesting stuff. We’ve all heard of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. When Russia launched Sputnik into orbit, the U.S. couldn’t track it or determine if other launches occurred. NRL scientists expanded MINITRACK to solve that problem, creating the Naval Space Surveillance System (NAVSPASUR). NAVSPASUR allowed the U.S. to detect and track all types of Earth-orbiting objects, making everyone feel a lot better about America’s national security during the Cold War. Although they still hid under desks.

As more and more objects begun orbiting the Earth, NRL expanded NAVSPASUR. In the mid-1960s, the NRL began developing a constellation of satellites carrying high-precision atomic clocks, eventually achieving reliable satellite navigation capabilities.

The first satellite to transmit GPS signals launched in 1977. This is where those military transports I mentioned above came in. Suddenly, the military had the ability to track time and location on Earth using technology we sent into the sky. And we lost far fewer convoys this way. Pretty cool, right?

Today, there are two GPS services in existence. The Standard Positioning Service is the one used by us civilians, while the Precise Positioning Service is available only to the U.S. military and the militaries of U.S. allies. A modernization program is working to eliminate the already minimal accuracy difference between military and civilian GPS, but military GPS will still have certain important advantages (enhanced security and jam resistance, for example).

But I thought that I got my GPS from Google, Garmin, TomTom, Yahoo, Apple…..   

Boom! Technology. In 1983, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began to focus on miniaturizing GPS receivers.

When they became easy to make, car makers started integrating GPS technology into high-end cars. And then we could all get portable receivers, from companies like Garmin and TomToms. And in 2002, global company Qualcomm announced that it had developed technology to convert individual cell phones into GPS devices by combining the information from GPS satellites and cell phone towers.

Because GPS is free, open, and hyper-dependable, its development has led to innovation in just about every part of modern life. You can find GPS technology in cell phones, watches, cars, ATMs, bulldozers, tractors…. Ah-mazing.

So, essentially, government putting money into new technology helped pave the way for corporations to start entire industries, create jobs, and help me find my way to the new Trader Joe’s?


Does anyone not like GPS?

Probably. But when both millennials and baby boomers are behind a technology, it’s a good. In fact, it’s an awesome.


I know, right?

I love my GPS.

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