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Global Positioning System celebrates 20 years of service

AFMC News Service - TRANSMITTED MAR. 23, 1998

AFMC News Service # 98-3-20

By Aaron Renenger, SMC Public Affairs Office

An Atlas F class rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 22, 1978, carrying a payload that would revolutionize navigation around the world.

The payload was the first-ever Global Positioning System satellite - the launch coming five years after the GPS Joint Program Office was founded here at what is now the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The SMC team that acquired the first satellite realized the tremendous possibilities of the system.

"The potential of GPS is such that it could affect every area of the country through military and possible civilian applications," said Col. Bradford Parkinson, then GPS program manager, shortly after the launch.

Today, GPS is important to global users. Reaching far beyond military application, GPS satellites provide navigational and timing information for uses as varied as earthquake research, city planning, precision farming and endangered-species monitoring. The technology has become so pervasive even sport fishing enthusiasts call it "one of the most amazing fishing devices ever."

"The GPS today is being used by more people in more ways than the military could have ever envisioned," said Col. James Armor, director of the GPS Joint Program Office. "It really gives you a tremendous sense of pride when you realize that men and women from SMC and Aerospace Corporation have played the major role in acquiring this important global utility."

Though launched 20 years ago, the system has grown most significantly in the last decade, SMC officials said. During the 1991 Persian Gulf campaign, GPS played a critical role in synchronizing military action during a lightening-blitz, 100-hour war fought on an endless, featureless ocean of sand.

Satellites were first used for position finding in a U.S. Navy system named TRANSIT to locate accurately ballistic missile submarines, according to a historical report from he Aerospace Corporation.

Tracing back to 1963, the space system ultimately became GPS. At that time, the Air Force was designated as the executive service to consolidate Navy and Air Force programs, which were separately assessing advanced satellite navigation systems.

Today, GPS satellites travel in 12-hour, circular orbits 11,000 nautical miles above Earth. They occupy six orbital planes, inclined 55 degrees, with four operational satellites in each plane.

Additional GPS satellites are being readied for use when aging satellites require replacement.

By the year 2000, approximately 17,000 U.S. military aircraft are expected to be equipped with GPS receivers. More than 100,000 portable receivers will be in use by U.S. ground forces and military vehicles.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences reports the commercial market for GPS services will be close to $30 billion by 2005, making the system one of the most important American investments in space. (AFSPC News Service contributed to this story)

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