A few years ago I made my first trek to a writers’ conference that was held not too far from Fresno. I live in Lancaster, and so I was facing a drive of more than three hundred miles.
To place I had never been before.
Since my sense of direction is essentially non-existent, this generated a certain amount of stress for me. After all, it was entirely possible I might get in the car, drive off, and never be heard from again, doomed to wander aimlessly for the rest of my life like some latter-day Lost Dutchman.
Thankfully, however, I live in the twenty-first century and so there was a solution to my disability: the GPS unit in my cellphone.
The Global Positioning System became operational in 1994, more than twenty years ago and it has become critical for our civilization, not just my family’s peace of mind when I’m away on a trip. It is a space-based global navigation satellite system that provides reliable location and time information. It works in all weather, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, anywhere on the surface of the Earth and even in places near the Earth (such as the International Space Station).
The GPS project was developed in 1973 by the United States Department of Defense and when it first went into operation in 1994 it used 24 satellites. Currently, there are 31 satellites in operation. Although the system is maintained by the United States government, it is freely accessible by anyone who happens to have a GPS receiver. Although such receivers used to be fairly expensive, today every cellphone you buy is equipped with GPS and a full navigation map system.
I’m old enough that I still find it remarkable that an object smaller than a stack of ten playing cards not only can calculate my position anywhere on Earth or nearby space to an accuracy of just a few feet, it can also talk to me and tell me where to go. Using Google Maps on my cellphone, I can see a blue dot that represents me. When I increase the resolution of the map to where I can see my house (itself, an amazing thing), I can watch the blue dot move from room to room with me. Since I have tracking turned on in my phone, my wife and children can bring up a map on their phones and find out precisely where I am at any given moment. We’ve arrived at that magical Star Trek place, where Captain Piccard of the Enterprise can ask the ship computer where his first officer is and be told, “he’s in Holo Deck 3.” So if I ask plaintively, “where am I” my wife or one of my daughters can now tell me.
Thus on that long lonely trip to the writers’ conference and back, my cellphone displayed a map showing my location. Meanwhile, a pleasant voice periodically told me where to go: “In one quarter mile, turn right at exit 443.”
Besides making sure that directionally challenged authors can make their way to writers’ conferences, GPS serves a number of other purposes. Besides the obvious military uses which allow smart bombs and missiles to precisely hit their targets, the constellation of global positioning satellites now undergird our economy and civilization.
GPS is used for all civilian airline and ship navigation. The satellites synchronize time for your cellphone and make it possible for emergency services to locate 911 callers. Disaster relief and emergency services in general rely on the system for location and timing capabilities. The system plays a role in ATM and point of sale transactions. Map makers—both military and civilian—make extensive use of GPS. GPS makes it possible now to precisely measure the motion of faults during earthquakes. GPS has become a widely deployed and useful tool for commerce, science, tracking, and surveillance. Its accurate time synchronization has become vital in everyday activities such as banking, mobile phone operations, and even the control of power grids.
The American GPS program is no longer the only satellite positioning system in operation. The Russians have a still limited system, while Europe, China, Japan and India are also developing their own.