Professor Bradford Parkinson - the 'Father of GPS'

Professor Bradford Parkinson was born on 16 February 1935 in Madison, Wisconsin. He completed his schooling in 1952 after attending Breck School. In 1957, he was recognised as an outstanding graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. In 1961, he completed a master's degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As a USAF officer; he was assigned to work at the Central Inertial Guidance Test Facility at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as a Chief Analyst for the evaluation of the Air Force's inertial guidance systems.

In 1964, he began a Ph.D. at Stanford University, graduating in 1966, with a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Career in the U.S Air Force

He joined the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in 1957. After completing his Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1966, he was assigned to the USAF Test Pilot School as an academic instructor (1966-1968) and was chief of the Simulation Division. He was also the chief academic instructor to a class of Astronauts. Many of his students went on to work at NASA and flew on the Space Shuttle.

After his time at the Test Pilot School, he was assigned to the Air Force Academy Department of Astronautics and Computer Science, where he worked as a professor and held the role of Deputy Head. At this time, he was also involved in the development of a brand-new version of the AC-130 gunship, overseeing the development of an innovative digital weapons control system. Later, he deployed to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, where he flew 26 combat missions, for which he was awarded several military honours.

Following deployment, he returned to the Air Force Academy as the Head of the Department of Astronautics and Computer Science.

Work on the Global Positioning System

In 1972, he was assigned to a project known by the code name 621B, aimed at developing a new navigation system using satellites. Through his keen dedication, he built a new team of experts, which he headed from 1973 until 1978. The team devised the concept for a satellite navigation system which is available for use 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, developed the system's architecture and achieved its launch. Professor Parkinson was personally responsible for gaining approval for the development of GPS in the U.S. Senate and from USAF leadership. 

In 1978, after 26 years in the military, he retired from the U.S. Air Force at the rank of full colonel.

However, work on the development of GPS continued. In 1979, he worked as a mechanical engineering professor at Colorado State University and later took up the role of Deputy President of the Space System Group at Rockwell International, where he worked on strategic planning and the development of advanced space systems. During the years 1980-1984, he was the vice president and CEO of the Boston-based software company Intermetrics, which was responsible for the creation of the HAL/S programming language used on the NASA Space Shuttle program.

In 1984, he accepted an appointment as a Research Professor at Stanford University where he went on to assume Stanford's "Edward C. Wells" Chair of Aeronautics and Astronautics, teaching Astrodynamics and Control Theory. In 1999, he took up the role of CEO at Trimble Navigation.

He was also the co-principal investigator and program manager on the NASA/Stanford University joint endeavour Gravity Probe B, which was the first ever direct mechanical test of Einstein's General Relativity. The results were announced and published between 2007 and 2015.

Bradford Parkinson has served on many corporate and governmental boards. For many years he has been one of the co-chairs of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Advisory Board - one of three organisations that oversee the Global Positioning System and its development and manage research programs and their funding. In addition, he prepares independent opinions for the U.S. government concerning its areas of responsibility.

Most Notable Achievements

Unquestionably, the most important achievement of Professor Parkinson is the launch of GPS. Another extremely important achievement, however, is the creation of the theoretical foundations and the development of the Wide Area Augmentation System (WASS), mainly used in air transport. The Professor is also the author of other innovations in the use of satellite systems, such as the blind landing of Boeing 737 aircraft using GPS alone, or the complete automatic control of agricultural tractors using GPS on an uneven field with an accuracy of two inches.

The Innovation of his work was confirmed by seven patents obtained during the years 1996-2004.

Professor Parkinson has been honoured with numerous awards and distinctions for his scientific and professional activity. One of the most important awards is the Queen Elizabeth Award, which was presented to the entire team responsible for the architecture and development of GPS in 2019 by the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III). A year earlier, he was given the IEEE Medal of Honor.

On 16 November 2023, the Senate of Gdynia Maritime University passed a resolution on the conferral of a doctorate honoris causa on Professor Bradford Parkinson

"in recognition of his revolutionary contribution to the development of technology and all modes of transportation, as well as the creation of the foundations for epochal change in the functioning of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries through leading the team responsible for the development of NAVSTAR, the Global Positioning System."

The motion to confer the Honorary Title of Doctor honoris causa on Professor Bradford Parkinson was supported by the senates of four higher education institutions:

  • Warsaw University of Technology
  • The Polish Naval Academy
  • The Polish Air Force University
  • Gdynia Maritime University

The reviewers as part of the conferral procedure were:

  • Professor Jarosław Bosy - Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences
  • Professor Stanisław Oszczak - the Polish Air Force University
  • Professor Zbigniew Burciu - Gdynia Maritime University.

A laudation was given at the ceremony by:

  • Professor Krzysztof Czaplewski - Gdynia Maritime University.

The ceremony for the conferral of the honorary title of Doctor honoris causa of Gdynia Maritime University took place on 21 March 2024.