For Women’s History Month, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency looks back on the legacies of some of the amazing women who have contributed to the field of geospatial intelligence. Trailblazers in their fields, these women broke down barriers, defied expectations and continue to inspire intelligence analysts daily across the Intelligence Community.
Dr. Gladys West is one such memorable women.
Gladys Mae Brown was born in 1930 in Dinwiddie, Virginia, a rural farming community. She often said she pursued higher education to escape a hard life on a farm. When she learned that the valedictorian and salutatorian from her high school would earn a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), she studied and graduated at the top of her class.
West majored in mathematics, which at the time, was a field studied nearly exclusively by men. She taught school in Sussex County for two years before she went back to school for her master’s degree in Public Administration. She later obtained a doctorate in Public Administration.
Determinedly, West sought out jobs where she could use her diverse skills and eventually was hired in 1956 as a mathematician at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, an early forerunner to Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.
“That’s when life really started,” she has said in numerous interviews.
When West began her career, she was the second black woman hired at the lab and one of only four black employees. One was a mathematician named Ira West, and the two dated and eventually married in 1957. They raised three children, and you could say they lived happily ever after, West said in later years.
Her first job at Dahlgren as a mathematician was verifying range and bombing tables. She initially did the calculations by hand, but when the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC) computer was installed, she became its programmer.
“That was the biggest computer in the Navy at the time …, so that was exciting because it was so fast and you could code much larger programs,” West said.
She transitioned to verifying data transmitted from satellites to determine their exact location in the 1950s and 1960s, and “she worked on computer software that processed geoid heights, or precise surface elevations,” according to NSWC Dahlgren documents.
West participated in a path-breaking, award-winning astronomical study that proved, during the early 1960s, the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Thereafter, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System orbit, according to an Air Force release honoring her role in GPS development.
West’s work occasionally required travel, but she remarked that in the beginning of her career, she and other black employees were sometimes passed over for travel opportunities because Jim Crow laws made it difficult for them to eat in restaurants and stay in hotels with their white colleagues.
Undeterred, she persisted in her career goals and continued to work hard. She took on leadership roles as her career progressed, and went on to become the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project. After 42 years at Dahlgren, West retired in 1998.
In 2018, Dr. West was inducted into the prestigious Air Force Hall of fame.
Dr. Gladys West is among a small group of women who performed computing work for the U.S. military in the era before electronic systems. The Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Award pays tribute to the leaders of the early years of the Air Force space program, as well as the subsequent innovators whose vision and perseverance overcame the obstacles of the unknown, those who transformed the cutting-edge of technology into operational systems, and those who dedicated their lives to exploring space in support of our national security.
Compiled from the following sources:
Women who put GEOINT on the map by NGA’s Office of Corporate Communications [Updated March 2019]
NSWC Dahlgren Division: Gladys West
NSWC Dahlgren Division Black History Blog, Feb. 21, 2018
Mathematician inducted into Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame