THIS MONTH MARKS the 25th anniversary of the launch of the first of the modern fleet of GPS satellites. GPS and predecessor systems have existed since the 1940s. That timing is significant, because in many ways the history of satellite navigation is the history of the Cold War.The launch of Sputnik in 1957, the first salvo of the Space Race, itself a product of the Cold War, started to get scientists wondering, “If it can beep… what else can it do?” They theorised that the Doppler Effect of the signals as they moved closer and further away from their earthbound receivers could hold the key to something interesting.
Fast forward to the ’80s, and although a GPS system had been inaugurated in 1973 it was highly secretive and strictly the preserve of the US military. This new NAVSTAR GPS network was the result of a pledge by Ronald Reagan who, during his presidency, agreed to open the system to civilian use following the downing of a Korean Airlines flight by the Russian military in 1983 after the pilot mistakenly strayed into Russian airspace, with the loss of 269 lives.
That tragedy was simultaneously both one of the biggest stories of the Cold War and also the start of a revolution in the way we navigate. At a stroke, even those with no discernable sense of direction could find their way. Less than a decade later, the completed GPS system got its first field test, as the Bush administration used it extensively in military operations during the first Gulf War.
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