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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Aero-Astro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2006–2007 issue of Aero-Astro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Alumnus profile

Brad Parkinson’s direction led him — then he led the rest of the world — to GPS

By Bob Sales

Bradford Parkinson

“My appreciation for control theory, inertial instruments and navigation accuracy were all fostered by Doc (Draper) and his lab,” says Aero-Astro alumnus and the “father of GPS” Brad Parkinson.


His father assumed Bradford W. Parkinson would follow in his footsteps to MIT when he graduated from the prestigious all-boys Breck School in St. Paul, Minn., in 1952. But Brad had his heart set on the U.S. Naval Academy, alma mater of both his Uncle Webster Smith and Rich Fontaine, a highly admired Eagle Scout from his hometown of Minneapolis, who rose to the rank of admiral during his Navy career.

“If that’s what you want to do, it’s okay,” Herbert Parkinson (SB 1927, Architecture) told his only son. The decision merely postponed his MIT experience.

Upon graduation from the Naval Academy in 1957, Brad Parkinson could not be a pilot, because he was nearsighted, but accepted a commission in the Air Force. The primary reason for choosing that service was the postgraduate education they offered. He served as the chief Communications-Electronics officer at an early warning station before the Air Force sent him to MIT for graduate school two years later.

At MIT, Parkinson, who went on to become the father of the Global Positioning System, developed the knowledge and skills that allowed him to guide that breakthrough research project. His thesis work at the Instrumentation Laboratory, known today as the Dr. Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, laid the groundwork.

“My appreciation for control theory, inertial instruments and navigation accuracy were all fostered by Doc and his lab,” Parkinson said. “Without that background, it is very unlikely that I would have been involved in GPS, gunships, or eventually a tenured professor at Stanford. While the Naval Academy was a good solid engineering school, I had to shift gears when I got to MIT.” For instance, he felt overwhelmed by the rigorous standards required for Atomic and Nuclear Physics (8.051). “My undergraduate physics at USNA did not prepare me for this course, so I had to really work on it,” he said. “In the end, I received an A, but that was only after an enormous effort.”

MIT wasn’t all study and grind. Intramural hockey provided the fun and games.

A group of mostly Air Force officers formed an Aero-Astro department team that won its league title. A team from Graduate House dominated by Canadians won the other league. The teams met in a two out of three championship series in 1961.

“All players on both sides were overachieving graduate students who hated to lose,” recalled Parkinson, who played left wing on the Aero/Astro team. “We were outclassed and sad to say, during the second period a general fight broke out. The MIT athletic director was in the stands and utterly shocked — maybe he never played hockey.” Play was halted and Graduate House was declared the winner. The series resumed two nights later. “By then, we all had regained our composure,” Parkinson said. “The Graduate House Canadians won easily and we all repaired to a local tavern and had a few beers as good friends.”

Parkinson received his M.S. in 1961 and spent three years as a missile guidance analyst before embarking upon a Ph.D. at Stanford, which he was awarded in 1966. Promoted to major, he was assigned to the Aerospace Research Pilots School and flew training missions with the test pilots. After receiving an early promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, he was assigned in 1969 to develop the A/C 130 Gunship, on which he later flew 26 combat missions during the Vietnam War, earning a Bronze Star, two Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation. A framed photo of the gunship hangs in his office nowadays.

Promoted to full colonel in 1972, he was assigned to lead the Air Force’s new 621B program, created to design an Air Force navigation system to replace the Navy’s Transit. At the time, two different groups in the Navy were also working on their own programs, with each office strenuously advocating its design. A cooperative program obviously would be more efficient, and Parkinson was assigned to head the Joint Services Program Office in 1973. The assignment had the potential to be a career-breaker because of the intense inter-service rivalries. Parkinson made it work.

Bradford Parkinson

Brad Parkinson (center) with Frank Butterfield of The Aerospace Corporation and Navy Commander Bill Huston discuss GPS in the early 1970s.

The critical design meeting took place at the Pentagon during Labor Day weekend in 1973. “I excluded all but my program office,” Parkinson said. “At the same time I wanted to architect a system which would consider all proposals. Some have asked, ‘Who invented GPS?’ The accurate answer is that no one person did.” I selected concepts and technologies from all sources, but GPS most closely resembles the concept developed by the USAF program 621B.

The joint program included Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps officers. But the staff was dominated by Air Force officers with advanced degrees from prestigious schools, including MIT and Michigan. They received critical support from the civilian Aerospace Corporation. “The head of Aerospace (Dr. Ivan Getting) had been a strong advocate for a system, although he had no role in the actual development,” Parkinson said. “He deserves much credit for helping us get through the political snares and traps of the Pentagon.”

The GPS system unveiled for military use in 1973, which now serves scores of civilians, is virtually unchanged from Parkinson’s original design. Among the civilian uses are tracking and dispatching fleets of vehicles, including Federal Express’ trucks and planes; creating travel routes, plowing fields, even allowing parents to follow their children’s activities. None of this started until the mid-’90s. Later at Stanford, Professor Parkinson led the research that demonstrated new GPS applications including Aircraft Blind Landings, Farm Tractor Autopilots to accuracies of two inches, and use of GPS to measure spacecraft attitude.

“The problem was not the lag in civil applications but the protracted delay in completing the system,” said Parkinson. He retired from the Air Force in 1978 just as the first GPS satellites were demonstrating the new capabilities. GPS was finally declared operational in 1995. “It could have been operational at least 10 years earlier, had they just cranked out more of the phase one satellites. As soon as the DOD saw it was successful, they started loading it down with additional requirements and constraints. They also tried to cancel it on several occasions, but the civil leadership of the Pentagon usually interceded and ensured it could continue.”

As a civilian, Parkinson was a professor at Colorado State University for a year before becoming a general manager and a CEO in private industry. He joined the Stanford University faculty in 1984 as a Research Professor and became tenured a few years later. He was also the co-PI and program manager on Gravity Probe-B, a $500M space test of the general theory of relativity. He became professor emeritus in 2000, but was recalled and still remains active in GPS research.

In 2003, he and Ivan Getting were awarded the Draper PrizeFor the concept and development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).” His relationship with Doc Draper had come full circle.
Parkinson, who celebrated his 72d birthday in February, lives in San Luis Obispo, where he enjoys his six children and five grandchildren. He remains very active, serving on many national committees advising the Government on GPS. For a while, he hoped to resume flying. “I’m so busy that, after I canceled a refresher session for about the fourth time, I had to abandon that idea — reluctantly,” he said.

Bob Sales, a former executive editor of the Boston Herald and editor of the Boston Phoenix, teaches journalism at Boston University and Northeastern University. He may be reached at

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