Bob Mitchell: Happy 25th birthday, GPS

Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Bob Mitchell Ozark Views & Comments

Last month, the US Air Force and Air Force Space Command celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Global Positioning System (GPS) becoming operational.

The Air Force celebrated this with fireworks from Cape Canaveral in late July by sending another new GPS satellite into orbit to continue refreshing the aging fleet of spacecraft, almost all of which have exceeded their design lifetimes with 10-plus years in orbit.

How many of you look at your cell phone to tell what time it is, or visit an ATM, or use a GPS receiver to help you find a restaurant, hospital, ballpark or concert venue?

Industry analysts estimate the entire economic impact of the GPS system upon the economy will reach $26.6 billion in 2016, across transportation, agriculture, aerospace and outdoor recreation industries.

Functional outdoors

There are those of us who us a GPS in our vehicle when traveling to location with which we aren't familiar. There are others who use the system on their boat, registering a favorite fishing spot on Table Rock Lake. Then there are those of us who have been known to find our way to a favorite hunting spot in an adjoining state. Stranded or injured outdoorsmen across the country have benefitted from rescue helicopters or search teams being able to find them accurately, no matter where they were in need of assistance.

That's all after having recorded the location of a favorite in the GPS, where it will stay as long as you don't erase the coordinates.

Making it work

The GPS system of ideally 24 satellites constantly serves the entire world population by broadcasting two important facts -- the precise time of day and the location of each individual satellite. Computer systems at the Air Force ground stations, within cell phone processing systems and within your hand-held GPS receiver or automobile navigation system (just to name a few applications) perform the additional calculations to display the precise time and location information to us on the ground in a form we can easily use and understand.

The fact that this marvelous system has been around now for 25 years, serving United States Armed Forces and the rest of the population across the globe, is a testament to how much we take this magic for granted. And it represents a handsome return on sizable investments by the U.S. taxpayer.

Another miraculous fact is that the average age of the Air Force staff responsible for operating this multi-billion dollar system to our benefit (at the Second and 19th Space Operations Squadrons, Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado) is only 24 -- younger than GPS itself.

The Russians and the Europeans have spent significantly of their own national treasures without providing a satellite navigation system of rival accuracy or reliability.


If you are wondering why this story attracted my attention, I guess it is time for me to come clean.

One of those Air Force satellite operators in Colorado is our first-born grandson, Senior Airman Sean Casey Mitchell. Last month, Sean and his squadron mates were able to set a new, average navigational accuracy level for a calendar month with an error distance of only nine centimeters, or 3-1/2 inches, no matter where you are on the globe. That puts these space operators far above the "wild blue yonder."

We are proud of our grandson, and this column is a thank you to the amazing young people in blue who bring us this round-the-clock service, every day of our year. No matter where we are, we can find ourselves.

It's free

Aside for your share of tax money that goes into the program, this valuable service for all those who choose to use it is absolutely free.

Come to think of it, there isn't much free lunch around these days.

Yes, you must have a GPS unit available to take advantage of the system, but few toys purchased these days are without this location-providing equipment.

This particular airman wearing the blue is well entrenched in his Air Force Reserve unit, which he serves on active duty. He seems to be their favorite master of ceremonies for special events and has become one of their prolific writers when covering public releases about the system.

Collaborated with Bruce, naturally.

Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat.