The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a space-based global navigation satellite system that provides reliable location and time information in all weather and at all times and anywhere on or near the Earth when and where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. It is maintained by the United States government and is freely accessible by anyone with a GPS receiver. In addition to GPS other systems are in use or under development. The Russian GLObal NAvigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is for use by the Russian military. There are also the planned Chinese Compass navigation system and Galileo positioning system of the European Union (EU). GPS was created and realized by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and was originally run with 24 satellites. It was established in 1973 to overcome the limitations of previous navigation systems.
The design of GPS is based partly on similar ground-based radio navigation systems, such as LORAN and the Decca Navigator developed in the early 1940s, and used during World War II. In 1956 Friedwardt Winterberg proposed a test of general relativity using accurate atomic clocks placed in orbit in artificial satellites. To achieve accuracy requirements, GPS uses principles of general relativity to correct the satellites’ atomic clocks. Additional inspiration for GPS came when the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik in 1957. A team of U.S. scientists led by Dr. Richard B. Kershner were monitoring Sputnik’s radio transmissions. They discovered that, because of the Doppler effect, the frequency of the signal being transmitted by Sputnik was higher as the satellite approached, and lower as it continued away from them. They realized that since they knew their exact location on the globe, they could pinpoint where the satellite was along its orbit by measuring the Doppler distortion (see Transit (satellite)).
The first satellite navigation system, Transit, used by the United States Navy, was first successfully tested in 1960. It used a constellation of five satellites and could provide a navigational fix approximately once per hour. In 1967, the U.S. Navy developed the Timation satellite that proved the ability to place accurate clocks in space, a technology that GPS relies upon. In the 1970s, the ground-based Omega Navigation System, based on phase comparison of signal transmission from pairs of stations, became the first worldwide radio navigation system. However, limitations of these systems drove the need for a more universal navigation solution with greater accuracy.
While there were wide needs for accurate navigation in military and civilian sectors, almost none of those were seen as justification for the billions of dollars it would cost in research, development, deployment, and operation for a complex constellation of navigation satellites. However during the Cold War arms race, the nuclear threat to the very existence of the United States was the one need that did justify this cost in the view of the US Congress. This deterrent effect is why GPS was funded. The nuclear triad consisted of the US Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) along with the US Air Force’s strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Considered vital to the nuclear deterrence posture, accurate determination of the SLBM launch position was a force multiplier.
Precise navigation would enable US submarines to get an accurate fix of their positions prior to launching their SLBMs. The US Air Force with two-thirds of the nuclear triad also had requirements for a more accurate and reliable navigation system. The Navy and Air Force were developing their own technologies in parallel to solve what was essentially the same problem. To increase the survivability of ICBMs, there was a proposal to use mobile launch platforms so the need to fix the launch position had similarity to the SLBM situation.
In 1960, the Air Force proposed a radio-navigation system called MOSAIC (Mobile System for Accurate ICBM Control) that was essentially a 3-D LORAN. A follow-on study called Project 57 was worked in 1963 and it was “in this study that the GPS concept was born.” That same year the concept was pursued as Project 621B, which had “many of the attributes that you now see in GPS and promised increased accuracy for Air Force bombers as well as ICBMs. Updates from the Navy Transit system were too slow for the high speeds that the Air Force operated at. The Navy Research Laboratory continued advancements with their Timation (Time Navigation) satellites, first launched in 1967, and with the third one in 1974 carrying the first atomic clock put into orbit.
With these parallel developments out of the 1960s, it was realized that a superior system could be developed by synthesizing the best technologies from 621B, Transit, Timation, and SECOR in a multi-service program.
Over the Labor Day weekend in 1973, a meeting of about 12 military officers at the Pentagon discussed the creation of a Defense Navigation Satellite System (DNSS). It was at this meeting that “the real synthesis that became GPS was created.” Later that year, the DNSS program was named Navstar. With the individual satellites being associated with the name Navstar (as with the predecessors Transit and Timation), a more fully encompassing name was used to identify the constellation of Navstar satellites, Navstar-GPS, which was later shortened simply to GPS.
After Korean Air Lines Flight 007, carrying 269 people, was shot down in 1983 after straying into the USSR’s prohibited airspace, in the vicinity of Sakhalin and Moneron Islands, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available for civilian use, once it was sufficiently developed, as a common good. The first satellite was launched in 1989, and the 24th satellite was launched in 1994.
Initially, the highest quality signal was reserved for military use, and the signal available for civilian use was intentionally degraded (“Selective Availability”, SA). This changed with U.S. President Bill Clinton ordering Selective Availability turned off at midnight May 1, 2000, improving the precision of civilian GPS from 300 meters (about 1000 feet) to 20 meters (about 65 feet). The U.S. military by then had the ability to deny GPS service to potential adversaries on a regional basis.
GPS is owned and operated by the U.S. Government as a national resource. Department of Defense (DOD) is the steward of GPS. Interagency GPS Executive Board (IGEB) oversaw GPS policy matters from 1996 to 2004. After that the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee was established by presidential directive in 2004 to advise and coordinate federal departments and agencies on matters concerning the GPS and related systems. The executive committee is chaired jointly by the deputy secretaries of defense and transportation. Its membership includes equivalent-level officials from the departments of state, commerce, and homeland security, the joint chiefs of staff, and NASA. Components of the executive office of the president participate as observers to the executive committee, and the FCC chairman participates as a liaison.
DOD is required by law to “maintain a Standard Positioning Service (as defined in the federal radio navigation plan and the standard positioning service signal specification) that will be available on a continuous, worldwide basis,” and “develop measures to prevent hostile use of GPS and its augmentations without unduly disrupting or degrading civilian uses.”