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9 Things You Never Knew About GPS

From your airplane to your phone, GPS is everywhere. Here's how it all started...

1) World War II Roots

The GPS design was loosely based on LORAN and the Decca Navigator system, both of which were developed during World War II for allied forces to navigate ships and aircraft at long range.

1-ww2 USAF

2) Sputnik

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, two american physicists started monitoring the satellite's transmissions. They quickly realized that because of doppler effect, they could identify where the satellite was in orbit. This would later become a key principle in GPS operation.

2-sputnik NASA

3) Cold War

During the Cold War, the US needed a more accurate and reliable means of navigating across the globe. And, the deterrent effect of a global navigation system is why GPS was initially funded by the US Congress.

3 - Cold War 2 NASA

4) High Speed Needs

Updates from the Navy's navigation system were too slow for high speed Air Force operations, so in 1963, a study was funded to determine if a satellite based navigation system would work.

4-sf-71 NASA

5) Navstar

GPS was initially called "Navstar", and between 1978 and 1985, 10 prototype satellites were launched into orbit. Only 9 satellites made it to space - 1 was destroyed in a launch failure.

5-launch NNSA

6) Civilian Use

In 1983, a Korean Air Lines 747 strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down, killing all passengers and crew. Shortly after, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available to the public once the system was sufficiently developed.

6-korean-air-747 Wikipedia

7) Five Years Of Satellite Launches

The first production GPS satellite was launched in 1989, and the 24th satellite was launched in 1994, making GPS a truly global system.


8) Selective Availability

The highest quality GPS signal was initially reserved for military use, and an intentionally degraded signal was used by civilian GPS devices. However, on May 1, 2000, Selective Availability was turned off, improving GPS accuracy from 100 meters to 20 meters. Today, GPS is even more accurate.

8-selective-availability USAF

9) Satellites Everywere

Currently, there are 31 healthy satellites in orbit, powering the navigation in everything from your airplane to your cell phone. Where would we be without GPS? Probably lost.

9-gps Luis Jou Garcia

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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