“I Had To Sell This To The Air Force, Because The Air Force Didn’t Want It”
BRADFORD W. PARKINSON KNEW THAT A GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM WOULD CHANGE THE WORLD, BUT THE OBSTACLES HE FACED WEREN’T ALL TECHNOLOGICAL
BRADFORD PARKINSON SOMETIMES CARRIES AROUND A photograph of a specially equipped tractor. The machine is equipped with a robotic driver that navigates back and forth solely on signals from the Global Positioning System, the network of 24 satellites orbiting 11,000 miles above Earth that beams precisely timed signals to allow anyone with a GPS receiver to pinpoint exactly where he is. Parkinson, a professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, says the robot has managed to drive the tractor with such precision that it can pass over planted crops and apply fertilizer and pesticides exactly where they are needed. Unlike a human, the robot can operate at night or in thick fog. It’s just one of thousands of applications of GPS that Parkinson and others have researched.
Parkinson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May for his leadership of the military project that created the GPS system. Along with Ivan Getting, an early pro- ponent of GPS, and many others, Parkinson helped create a navigation and positioning system so useful that some people have started calling it “the ninth utility,” after water, electricity, telephone, gas, sewers, garbage collection, television, and radio.
It all began in 1973, when then Colonel Parkinson, of the U.S. Air Force, was appointed to lead a joint military program to build an advanced navigational system. When he arrived, competing factions from the Navy, Air Force, and other services, each promoting its own technological solutions, were threatening to sink the project. “It was a mess,” he says. His first duty was to find a compromise plan that all the services could support. Despite repeated efforts by the services to cancel the project, a team of only 200 individuals on a budget of just $390 million managed to build the system. GPS’s extreme precision went on to revolutionize warfare, and now it is revolutionizing civilian life, with a steady stream of new commercial applications.
Parkinson was born on February 16, 1935, in Madison, Wisconsin. His life took a decisive turn when he was accepted as a student in the U.S. Naval Academy, and in 1957 he began a 21-year career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. The military sent him to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was greatly influenced by the legendary professor Charles Draper, known as the father of inertial guidance systems. Parkinson earned his master’s in aeronautics and astronautics in 1961 and then received a doctorate in the same fields from Stanford in 1966.
Since retiring from the military in 1978, he has served as chairman of the NASA advisory council and as a member of the Presidential Commission on Air Safety and Security. In private industry, he has served on several corporate boards and as chairman of the board of the Aerospace Corporation, vice president of the Space Systems Group of the former Rockwell International, and president and CEO of Trimble Navigation Ltd. In 2003 he and his co-inventor, Ivan Getting, shared the National Academy of Engineering’s $500,000 Draper Prize, named in honor of his former mentor at MIT.
These days Parkinson is busy as an associate program manager and co-investigator for Gravity Probe B, the NASA spacecraft that was launched on April 20 in an ambitious effort to measure the effects of relativity on space-time around Earth. He gave this interview at the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s museum, in Akron.
How old were you when you became interested in technology?
I never knew a time when I wasn’t. I always took it for granted that I would go to college and study engineering. I was good at math, and I enjoyed math, and that seemed like a natural springboard. Also, when I was in high school, I used to fool around with electronics. That gave me a leg up too. I ended up going to the Naval Academy. At the time everybody graduated from there with a general engineering degree. They forced you to sample everything. You didn’t concentrate on a specialty like electronics or thermodynamics. When I was a senior, I had a very nice course that touched on automatic control.
At the time, there were no satellites. I graduated in June of 1957, and that October the first satellite went up. I started my career at the very same time the space age began.
That first satellite was Sputnik . What did you think of it?
It was hard to figure out what it all meant. I think I first heard about it on the evening news. I was going to school to become an airborne electronics officer. I could understand how a satellite worked. I mean, I knew about the physics of an orbiting body, and I knew that the moon was a satellite. On the other hand, where was this technology going? The concern of the Air Force, of course, was the implication of the propulsion that sent Sputnik into orbit. It meant that the Soviets could threaten the United States with intercontinental missiles. So the space race was on. In 1959 I went to MIT and got into inertial guidance.
How well did you know Ivan Getting, your co-inductee for the GPS invention?
I knew him reasonably well. In 1972 I was a very young colonel, and I was placed in charge of System 621B, an Air Force predecessor of GPS. It was a program that had strong support from Getting, who was president of the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit R&D outfit. He sensed that there was a way to do something in this field, to move ahead.
I had two problems. First, I had to design what the real system would be, and it was clear that it was not going to be just what the Aerospace Corporation had been working on. So one thing I had to do was get Aerospace to move over a bit and give me some room. I was not going to use just their ideas. Second, I had to sell this to the Air Force, because the Air Force didn’t really want it. As a matter of fact, the Air Force canceled GPS at least three times—and after we had shown what it could do. During that period Ivan Getting was a powerful advocate. He could get to the higher levels at the Department of Defense, or he could haul me in and let me talk. We had a cordial relationship. He was upset that we weren’t using just his idea, but I think he forgave me.
GPS keeps getting better. It uses a single frequency, but we’re going to add two more. This will make it more robust and will allow even more precise and far-reaching measurements.
Did you always know how important the civilian uses would be?
Absolutely. The briefings I gave always started with the military side of things, but I had another set of charts that showed what we saw coming on the civilian side. Very powerful civilian applications. The signal structure we use is digital, and we chose that because we could sense the shrinking of digital circuitry and electronics. The first GPS sets used great big racks of equipment. They consumed well over a kilowatt, and they cost $200,000 or more each. But we could see that with a digital signal we could shrink it.
One fascinating thing is that whenever I talk to anybody who is a sailboat captain, he always tells me that he has not one but two or three GPS sets onboard. People carry spares.
I suspect that your whole team thought they were changing the world.
That’s accurate. That’s one of the reasons we could do so much with a relatively small office. I had a few young men and women who absolutely sacrificed themselves. The time they put in, the hours they spent, the energy, the enthusiasm—it was absolutely awesome. When we got approval to put satellites up, we had them in orbit in 44 months, from a dead start. Typically today it takes 10 years. That is a testimony to a lot of people who thought they were on a wartime footing.
And the reason was the attitude of the Air Force! Our threat wasn’t the Soviets; it was that the hierarchy at the Pentagon might cancel the program. We demonstrated the whole program for roughly $150 million. That’s mind-boggling in itself. We used old intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch our satellites. I’m in awe of all the people who did it. They were very resourceful.
Why was the Pentagon opposed? Did they doubt that GPS would be accurate enough to be useful?
That was part of it, especially early on. I said we’re going to position within 10 meters. People said, “With satellites 11,000 miles up, you’re going to position within 10 meters? Go away. We don’t believe it.”
I can remember roaming the corridors of the Pentagon and having four-star generals stick their fingers in the middle of my chest and inform me that my otherwise brilliant career was going to grind to a halt if I didn’t stop this, and they wanted to squeeze my funding, and all like that. Well, by 1978 and ’79 we had demonstrated what GPS would do. We had six satellites up. We had their orbits arranged so that once a day they would cluster together like a constellation overhead. You could no longer deny that the accuracy was there.
I set two goals. One was the military-accuracy goal of being able to put five bombs in the same hole. The other was to build a cheap set of chips that worked. Two very simple goals. We wanted our cheap chip set to cost $10,000. Today a set is, what, $20? We worked very hard on user equipment.
The Air Force didn’t think we could do it. The problem at the Pentagon is that everything is a zero-sum game. If you fund one thing, you can’t fund another. And the Pentagon has always taken airplanes most seriously. Now, did we recognize that? We did. That’s why we thought the major threat was not the Soviets but that someone was going to stop us. So we were running fast.
If you look at Kosovo, Iraq I, and Iraq II, I think you’ll see that virtually every weapons system relied on GPS. I call it the “humanitarian bombing system.” Because with a GPS-guided bomb you can hit what you’re trying to hit and not hit what you aren’t trying to hit. You can work closely with your troops on the ground and not fear you’re going to hit them, or a mosque, or a hospital.
What applications lie in the future and interest you most?
The safety applications have always excited me. I’ve got a chart that shows the plot of 110 aircraft landings all done completely blind, using a 737 guided completely by GPS. We went into the autopilot, and instead of feeding in the normal signals, we fed in GPS. The landings were more accurate than what human pilots can do.
The Federal Aviation Administration is now looking into this. It was simply a demonstration, but 110 straight perfect landings is an eye opener. A concept like this demonstrates an affordable way to open up additional regional airports and to add safety too. So it has both economic and infrastructure implications as well as safety implications.
Another interesting thing is that when you use GPS in a survey mode, with a receiver here and a receiver there, you can determine position to slightly more than the width of a pencil lead, and in three dimensions. And you can do that continuously. So now there are more than 400 sets in California on either side of the fault lines, and they produce plots that show the velocity of ground movement measured in millimeters per year. With all these samples, it’s possible to look at the motion of tectonic plates in three dimensions. Apparently there’s a plate out in the ocean that’s diving under the one on land, and no one was ever able to model it accurately before.
Geologists also can monitor when strain is building up. With an earthquake, strain builds up, and then you have a sudden break, when it gives. Some of my fellow professors at Stanford have been working on this, and I just think it’s fascinating. That’s something I didn’t foresee when we were developing GPS.
Another thing about GPS is that it’s really four-dimensional. It actually measures time. It can determine sidereal time, and it turns out that all the timing for the Internet is now being done by GPS. That timing of a nanosecond or two is important, because when you are sending data back and forth, you don’t want to wait for the return trip to say, “I got this,” or “You can transmit now.” Instead, you want to have slots allocated, so that I know that when this reaches you, you will be listening. GPS allows you to do that.
I’ve heard that you’re concerned that GPS makes life a little too easy.
Yes, it’s a little frightening. With GPS, you take knowing where you are for granted. Here’s an example. Next month one of my sons is graduating from college. We’ve rented a large catamaran, and we’re going to take it out to the West Indies for 10 days. I am the captain. In the past, when I’ve gone out, I’ve been very sensitive to the fact that you don’t want to put your boat on hard things. So you pay close attention to where you are. Well, GPS allows you to let that skill atrophy. And you worry if the skill will be there if your GPS set breaks.
As a professor, what do you think of the next generation of scientists and engineers?
There’s still a level of extremely bright and dedicated, welltrained students, but my perception is that we’re dumbing down our whole society. Maybe as I get older, wiser, and more curmudgeonlike, I look at the next generation with a somewhat jaded eye. But I don’t think that’s really so. And I increasingly detect in the media an almost antitechnology bias. Like “Who needs all this?” But if you go back 200 years, the drudgery was horrible. It is technology that has taken that drudgery away. There’s more safety to our lives today. Yet it seems that the public takes technology for granted and thinks it’s too complicated to understand.
I think it starts in the schools. We don’t have enough qualified teachers, and if I were king, I would put in smaller class sizes, in smaller schools. Some of my kids went to high schools with 3,000 students. In a school like that, only two types of students get attention, the ones at the very top and the troublemakers at the very bottom. If you’re in the middle, you’re lost.
When I was growing up, a high school of 600 or 700 students was big but manageable. With 250 kids in a high school class, the teachers could get to know them all. They could keep track of them. I just don’t think that’s possible now. I think we’re losing some minds we can’t afford to lose.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years. We’re going to have to wrestle with this problem. There was a time in this country when our natural resources could carry us. But many of those resources are exhausted, or they don’t provide the edge they once did. If you look at up-andcoming countries like India and China, you can see that they’re installing an intellectual elite. They get it. At Stanford, where I teach, roughly half the graduate students are not American. I’m not against foreign students, but it grieves me that somehow we can’t find an equivalent number of those students from our own resources. The good part, though, is that a substantial portion of those students will stay here. It’s very much in keeping with the way we’ve always renewed our society over the last 200 years.
Why is what technology does for us not appreciated?
I was speaking about this with another inductee. I have a perception: Every time there’s a good story that comes along, the media are trained to find a countervailing story. Well, sometimes it’s a stretch to find a countervailing story. For example, we put a man on the moon. Then a story went around that we hadn’t put a man on the moon at all; it was a hoax. Why should a story like that get any media attention at all? It’s a ridiculous statement by an absolute ignoramus. But it’s a statement, and it gets blown out of shape.
When I was young, a cartoon character called Reddy Kilowatt used to advertise the advantages of electrification and how wonderful it was. The National Academy of Engineering came out last year with a coffee table book about the 20 key engineering achievements of the twentieth century. Number one was electrification. We take it for granted. If you don’t think it’s important, wait until the electricity doesn’t work. We take all this technology for granted. We forget how we got here.
Out where I live in California, the road system has been a great enabler of society. But frankly, the roads and bridges are crumbling. I think we allow that to happen because we take the road system for granted. And I don’t know how to get through to people without depriving them of something. I don’t have a simple answer.
You’ve had an extremely successful career as an engineer and an inventor. Do you have any idea what it is that makes you different from the next guy?
Well, let’s be honest. There’s one quality you don’t get to choose, and that’s luck. The stars all coalesced for me. When the space age began, I had exactly the right background. I had an astrodynamics background. Space mechanics. I’d done automatic controls. When I went to MIT, I took not only all the astro courses for a master’s degree but also took all the electrical engineering courses. So I was well prepared for the GPS project, even though I didn’t know I was preparing for it.
And there was a lot of luck in the fact that a certain crusty general plucked me out of where I was and said, “You are going to go run that. ” As it turns out, I think I was the right person at the right time.
I’m a little bit of a student of history. If you look back, Grant is given a lot of credit for winning the Civil War for the Union. But when the war started, he was working in his father’s dry goods store. He had gone to West Point, but he’d gotten out of the Army and wasn’t pursuing a military career. Yet if you look at his career, he was actually a deep student of what he did. His military campaigns were very effective. Still, if the Civil War hadn’t come along, nobody would have ever heard of Ulysses S. Grant. Well, the space age happened to come along, and I happened to have had the right education, and a three-star general happened to pick me. I would like to say, “It’s all me, and I did it myself,” but obviously that’s not so. Though I like to think I was a pretty good selection.