On December 6, 2018, 87-year-old mathematician Dr. Gladys West was presented with the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers award for her decades of contributions to the Air Force’s space program. Dr. West was among the pioneering “Hidden Figures” who did computing for the U.S. military in the era before electronic systems, and the woman we should all thank for the system most of us rely on to pinpoint our location and find our way.
According to Air Force Space Command Public Affairs, “Dr. Gladys West is among a small group of women who did computing for the U.S. military in the era before electronic systems. Hired in 1956 as a mathematician at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, she participated in a path-breaking, award-winning astronomical study that proved, during the early 1960s, the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.”
From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, “using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.”
As West was unable to attend the formal induction ceremony that took place on August 28, she was presented with the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame award during a ceremony in her honor at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., last month, on December 6, 2018. Air Force Space Command Vice Commander Lt. Gen. DT Thompson presented Dr. West with the award, which is one of Air Force’s Space Commands Highest Honors.
Photos by Adrian Cadiz, Air Force Space Command