The Global Positioning System (GPS) has become an everyday utility like electricity – intrinsic to modern life, and unthinkable to live without for at least 5 billion people around the world. The engineering principles underlying GPS came to light when the USSR launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, in 1957. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University noticed that the frequency of radio signals from the Russian satellite shifted as it moved closer or farther away. They theorized that if this signal shift could indicate a satellite’s location, then it could also indicate a receiver’s location based on its distance from that satellite. This discovery led to an early version of GPS known as TRANSIT that provided navigation to military and commercial users, and a proof of concept to the United States Defense Department. In the 1970s the U.S. Airforce started the Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) program to launch a network of such satellites, and contracted Rockwell International to design and build them. The manager for the team undertaking this gargantuan effort was Dick Schwartz, who graduated from The Cooper Union with a degree in Mechanical Engineering the same year of Sputnik’s launch.
In a recent interview Schwartz stressed the importance of setting high standards when working in the field. “You’ve got to have a very high requirement for quality in what you do. You launch a satellite: you kiss it goodbye. You’ll never see it again. So it better be in good shape when you let it go. One day my wife saw I was a little nervous and I told her, ‘That satellite has 30,000 parts on it, and if one of them fails it will be because I did a lousy management job.’” Thankfully, Schwartz’s excellent leadership and rigorous education from Cooper led to the team’s success – the first NAVSTAR satellite launched in 1978, and was followed by many others that make up our complex GPS network today. For this accomplishment, Schwartz and his team were awarded the 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which some call the Nobel Prize for Engineering. GPS wasn’t the only aerospace success story Dick Schwartz played a part in. During his 32-year career with Rockwell International he also led the development of rocket propulsion systems and power systems for the lunar landings, the International Space Station, and the Saturn V program.