Gladys Mae West - The woman who modelled the Earth


Gladys Mae West, (born 1930), She was born as Gladys Mae Brown in Sutherland, Virginia. West learned very early on that she didn't want to work in tobacco fields or factories like the rest of her family, and determined that college would be her ticket out.


West studied relentlessly and graduated in 1948 as a valedictorian, and West eventually decided to study mathematics, a subject mainly learned at her college by men. In 1956, West was recruited to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center), where she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees.


In the early 1960s, she involved in an award-winning astronomical study that showed the regularity of Pluto's motion relative to Neptune. Promptly, West started to study satellite data, bringing together altimeter models of the structure of the Earth.

“When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, 'What impact is this going to have on the world?' You're thinking, 'I've got to get this right.'"- Gladys Mae West

From the mid-1970s to the 1980s, West programmed an IBM computer to produce extremely accurate measurements to model the structure of the Earth – an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. The generation of an incredibly accurate model allowed it to use sophisticated algorithms to account for differences in gravity, tidal, and other forces that deform the shape of the Planet. In the end, West data formed the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).


West worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, retired in 1998. After her retirement, she earned a Ph.D. in Public Administration from Virginia Tech. West was introduced to the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the highest awards given by the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)

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