History

Does Someone Actually Own GPS?

Global positioning is an important navigation tool for civilians and the military, but who actually operates GPS?

Next time your phone or your in-car system whispers sweet GPS mapping directions in your ear, you might pause to wonder: Who actually owns the Global Positioning System, anyway?

Short answer: The United States. The longer answer gets interesting.

As Jules Suzdaltsev details in this Seeker Daily report, the commercial aerospace company SpaceX has announced it will launch a new GPS satellite for the U.S. Air Force in 2018.

Indeed, the Global Positioning System that much of the world uses today was created by the U.S. Air Force Space Command. The idea of a satellite-based positioning system dates back to the late 1950s, prompted by the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik.

By the 1980s, the GPS system was conceptually operational – but top secret and limited to military use. In 1983, the Cold War threatened to heat up dramatically after a Korean Air Lines flight was shot down over Russia. To prevent similar accidents in the future, president Ronald Reagan acknowledged the existence of the Global Positioning System and pledged to make the technology widely available.

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By 1994, a network of 24 satellites was established and the system was fully operational. However, the U.S. military retained exclusive access to the system's full capabilities. Civilians and other countries were limited to using an intentionally weaker version of the technology.

Subsequent developments made the military's advantage irrelevant and in May of 2000, president Bill Clinton removed civilian restrictions. Today, the U.S. Department of Defense maintains the GPS system.

GPS isn't the only network in orbit around planet Earth, by the way. India and Russia both have systems in use. In fact, by some measures, Russia's GLONASS system is more accurate than GPS. Japan, China and the European Union also have similar systems in various phases of development.

One final note: Annual operating cost for the GPS system is around $750 million per year. So keep this in mind next time Siri tells you to turn left: She's plugged into some serious technology.

Learn More:

Wired: Celebrating 25 Years Of Not Getting Lost Thanks To GPS

Federal Aviation Administration: Frequently Asked Questions - GPS

GPS: GPS Overview

NASA: Global Positioning System History