The Global Positioning System

GPS, aka The Global Positioning System, is now something we just take for granted. But its history is fascinating and worth 300 words today. First– GPS is owned by the United States government and operated by the US Space Force. Technically, it’s today a network of 33 satellites not in geosynchronous/geostationary orbit. At any given point in time, at least four satellites are visible from anywhere on earth.

The GPS project started at the US Department of Defense in 1973; the first prototype satellite launched in 1978; the first constellation of 24 satellites came online and operational in 1993.

Originally, GPS was solely meant to be used only by the US military but President Ronald Reagan authorized its civilian use via executive order sometime in the 1980s. It really only became truly useful to civilians starting on May 3, 2000 though when the US government disabled “Selective Availability” which had hitherto deliberately added errors (up to 100 meters) to GPS precision when civilians used it. Not good for Google Maps navigation, one can imagine.

Finally: It’s worth noting that the US government can selectively deny or degrade access to GPS to selective endpoints at the government’s discretion. For example, Uncle Sam did this in 1999 during the Kargil War to the Indian Army when India and Pakistan were fighting over the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Since foreign nation states understandably don’t want to forever be at the whim and mercy of America, they’ve also started launching their own GPS satellites in the past two decades. Russia developed GLONASS (which finally completed in 2011, but its origins actually date back to the USSR, 1976); China launched BeiDou in 2000; the EU’s GNSS (Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System) went live in 2016, India put NavIC into orbit in 2018; and Japan even contributed QZSS (“Michibiki”) –four additional satellites– that augmented in the American system in 2018. In 2023, Japan plans to launch seven additional satellites to create its own independent system.

Anyway, America did it first. And also: For anyone who wonders why a fourth of the federal budget goes to defense each year, this is one reason why. So America can be #1 and have nice things. Even if it means our citizens don’t get universal healthcare and the poorest among us are consigned to dying in the streets. At least we gave the world GPS.