NASA wasn’t the only organization with “Hidden Figures,” women of color who worked behind the scenes on computations that helped propel Americans into space.
The military installation now known as Naval Support Facility Dahlgren had one of its own—a quiet and unassuming mathematician named Gladys West. The King George County woman did research on the Earth’s shape that became the basis for the Global Positioning System, or GPS, a vital technology in the 21st century.
West’s role in its development was brought to the surface in late 2017 when she was writing a brief bio about herself for a sorority function. Fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha member Gwen James read the short-and-sweet line about West being part of the team that worked on the GPS in the 1950s and ’60s and was blown away.
The two women had known each other for more than 15 years, yet James had no idea her friend had such a “pivotal role” in a technology that’s become a household word.
“GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever,” James said in a 2018 story in The Free Lance–Star, later adding how thrilling it was to see her friend get the long-deserved attention. “Her story has resonated nationally and internationally.”
As word spread throughout the virtual world, organizations near and far lined up to honor her. West, 88, was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame and given a standing ovation on the Senate floor of the General Assembly in Richmond.
She’s scheduled to be inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame this fall and to be recognized by the 400 Years of African–American History Commission.
Several stories about inspirational women—those who excelled in science and other achievements in the defense and aerospace industries—have cited West’s 42-year career at Dahlgren.
While there, West worked on the science that measures the size and shape of the Earth “and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data,” Capt. Godfrey Weekes, then-commanding officer at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, wrote in 2017. “She likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come.”
West has said just that, repeatedly, as she has accepted awards and honors. Ever humble, she simply said she was trying to do a good job.
“Many years ago, I had committed myself to being the best I could be,” she said.
That attitude is what kept her out of the tobacco fields of Virginia. As a girl growing up in Dinwiddie County south of Richmond, she knew she didn’t want to work picking crops or in a factory, as her parents did.
When she discovered that the top two students from her high school would earn a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), she worked hard to get her free ticket. She majored in math, taught for two years, then went back to school for her master’s degree.
When she got a call from the Dahlgren facility, then known as the Naval Proving Ground, she went there to work in 1956, and “that’s when life really started,” she said.
The second black woman hired at the base, she was one of four black employees at that time. One was a mathematician named Ira West, and the two dated for 18 months before they married in 1957.
The two drove to work, and back home for lunch, together during their careers. Since retiring, they take exercise classes at the King George YMCA and attend programs on the Navy base’s history at the Dahlgren campus of the University of Mary Washington.
Ira has been by his wife’s side at every appearance she’s made in recent years. While she appreciates the accolades, she’s not comfortable in the limelight. Still, earlier this month, the “Hidden Figure” from Dahlgren shared the stage with the writer who coined the phrase.
West and Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” were featured in a 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon-landing program at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
The focus of their presentation was “the profound, and often unacknowledged, ways that women of color have contributed to American innovation,” which sounds like a road map of Gladys West’s life.