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For GPS, Also Thank Ivan Getting; He Got “the Damn Thing Funded”

The founding president of the Aerospace Corp. was the force behind the Navstar global positioning system of satellites

11 min read

Professor Ivan Getting working in his laboratory.
Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1991, I sat down with Ivan Getting, then age 79 and retired but still serving on the boards of directors of several companies. The U.S. satellite navigation system, now referred to as GPS, then more commonly called Navstar, wasn’t complete, but covered most of the world and had proved essential to the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf War. We thought Spectrum’s readers would want  to know more about how Getting came to play such a big role in making Navstar.

I had no idea at the time just how much GPS would come to mean personally, to me and just about everyone. Getting had some good stories to tell, so I was interested, but GPS hadn’t changed my life—at least, not yet.

Getting was the first satellite navigation pioneer to tell me his story, but not the last. The next year I interviewed Charles Trimble, founder of Trimble navigation and one of the first to bet his company on the commercial possibilities of satellite navigation; the full text of that profile is here. (In just that short year, we’d stopped calling the technology Navstar, it was now and going forward GPS.)

This year, I met with a third key figure in the history of satellite navigation, Brad Parkinson, who, as an Air Force colonel, took Getting’s vision of satellite navigation and ran the program that got that system spec’d out and launched (literally). Next month, Parkinson will receive the 2018 IEEE Medal of Honor for his work.

This time I knew how much of a difference GPS made to the world and to me, so was more than a little excited. On the way to meet Parkinson, I also thought about what I’d perhaps lost—once in a while in that pre-GPS past, wrong turns led to even better destinations than those originally targeted. But the net gain has been a huge, even though my children will never know how to read a Thomas guide or a AAA Triptik.

What follows below is my 1991 article profiling Ivan Getting. It covers the development of Navstar, along with an early project in Getting’s career which evolved into the “Scudbuster” used in the Gulf War, other technical projects, and the origins of the Aerospace Corp.

But my favorite Getting quote from that 1991 profile interview isn’t about technology—it’s about work environments. When Getting first joined Raytheon in 1951, he recalled, the company crowded its engineers into large open areas. But Getting thought engineers would be better served by private offices.

“I had been a working engineer myself,” Getting told Spectrum. “I didn’t want to be one of a thousand. I wanted individuality. Scientists and engineers, if they are any good, want individuality; they want an opportunity to get together with other engineers, but they don’t want to be herded like sheep. And the cost of adequate office space is the smallest part of the total cost of operating a high-tech company.”

I wonder what this pioneering engineer would think of Silicon Valley’s workplaces today.

Ivan A. Getting

The founding president of the Aerospace Corp. was the force behind the Navstar global positioning system of satellites

Part of the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf might have been lost in the dessert were it not for a vision that Ivan A. Getting had in 1960 and pursued relentlessly for the past 30 years. At the very least, the military might not have been able to locate their precise positions or know exact coordinates as easily, a crucial advantage in commanding and controlling forces in the desert and on the sea, and in deploying surgical-strike weapons.

Getting’s vision is Navstar, the global positioning system of satellites. It dates to the 1940s, when Getting was a researcher working on radar weapons control systems at the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. His colleagues in a nearby lab were developing the navigation system used today by ships and planes, Loran. Using land-based transmitters to send signals to a receiver on the missile, Loran compares the arrival times of the different signals to calculate its position.

“Ivan is relentless in pursuing an objective”

In the 1950s, as head of research and engineering at Raytheon Corp., Waltham, Mass., Getting led a project to develop a mobile ballistic missile guidance system called Mosaic, which was to work like the Loran system. But Getting envisioned another concept. Though the railroad mobile version of the intercontinental ballistic missile was cancelled, he realized that if a similar system were used, one that based the transmitters on satellites, and if enough satellites were lofted so that four were always in sight, it would be possible to pinpoint locations in three dimensions anywhere on earth. This theory led to Navstar.

In 1960 Getting was asked by the U.S. Air Force to create a nonprofit military systems development organization, the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, Calif. During the hectic early days of building the new company, he assigned a planning group to look at the feasibility of his idea to navigate globally by satellites. Though as president of the Aerospace Corp. he took on many complex projects—planning new ballistic missile systems, overseeing space launch systems, and developing high-powered chemical lasers—global satellite navigation remained his constant passion.

FINDING FUNDS. It was clear from the start that Navstar would require at least 18 satellites for worldwide coverage and would cost billions of dollars.

His biggest concern, he recalled, “was to get the damn thing funded.” He became an evangelist for Navstar, promoting it at every opportunity to the presidential science advisor and to the heads of the various armed forces. “I was selling everywhere, promoting, promoting,” Getting said.

“Ivan is relentless in pursuing an objective,” Sam Tennant, the current Aerospace Corp. president, told Spectrum. “Navstar was not a program that came easily. In the early days, there were few believers.”

But eventually people started buying into Getting’s project, although with some reluctance. The Air Force consented to fund a study. The R&D board of the Department of Defense agreed to fund a technology demonstration. And finally, the Department of Defense approved funding of the development and deployment of a complete Navstar system, costing some US $10 billion.

The first Navstar satellite was launched in 1978; by 1985 enough satellites were in orbit for Navstar to be used, in at least two dimensions, in most areas of the world. Complete worldwide coverage was expected to be available by 1987, but the launch schedule was set back by the Challenger disaster. Its scheduled completion date, with 18 satellites sending out signals, is now set for 1993.

Navstar now fully covers the Persian Gulf area, and coalition forces carry thousands of receivers that can calculate positions within accuracies of less than about 9 meters (30 feet).

Today Getting is theoretically retired, but he shows little sign of slowing down and talks warmly about the experiences of his long career. When he is not on the road, advising companies and the Department of Defense, he spends much of his time in a crowded office in his Brentwood Park home in Los Angeles, a stone’s throw from Hollywood stars. There, he is surrounding by stacks of documents demanding attention (his filing system has deteriorated since he gave up corporate life and the personal secretary that went with it.) In his free moments, he retreats to a tiny backyard greenhouse, where he raises orchids.

PATRIOT PREDECESSOR. Navstar was not the only military technology used in the Person Gulf conflict associated with Getting’s research efforts. The Patriot missile—the so-called Scudbuster—uses radar and computers to home in on attacking missiles. It is a sophisticated version of a radar-based automatic antiaircraft system Getting worked on during World War II—the SCR-584.

This was the first system to use radar and computers to calculate missile paths. It was a hands-on project: Getting and his team built a demonstration system in 1941, working in an old World War I hangar at MIT, in the middle of the winter, with no heat. By 1944 some 300 SCR-584s were placed around London, and they logged a success rate of 95 percent in shooting down Germany’s V-1 cruise missiles.

The SCR-584 also tracked the V-2 ballistic missile (a forerunner of the Scud) and traced its path backward—to its launch site—as well as forward; launch site coordinates could be quickly radioed to fighter-bombers and swiftly attacked. When the Patriot was designed this feature was deleted from the system specifications, Getting said, because of concern that such a capability would cause the Patriot to be classified as an offensive, rather than defensive, weapon.

For his work on the SCR-584, Getting received the Medal of Merit from President Harry Truman in 1948, one of 15 scientists so recognized that year.

CAREER CHOICE. While Getting’s parents did not have a scientific bend—his father was involved in Slovakian politics and publishing—Getting seems to have been born with an interest in technology.

But the choice of military engineering seemed less ordained. Getting did not spend his childhood building model aircraft or in fantasizing about building real planes and tanks. Rather, he fell into a military career almost in spite of himself.

As a child in Perth Amboy, N.J., he received a hand-me-down Meccano set—a toy that competed with Erector sets—consisting of plates, gears, axles, and other metal parts. With the set, he figured out how a car’s differential worked. He went on to study physics at MIT, winning a scholarship in a contest to find Edison’s successor. Graduating in 1933, the depts. Of the Depression, Getting had no hope of finding a job in his field, so he applied for a Rhodes scholarship and studied astrophysics at Oxford University in England. This was followed by studying nuclear physics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he developed the first high-speed flip-flop.

“I didn't want to be one of a thousand, I wanted individuality”

Then, he says, “I got trapped by the war.” The Radiation Laboratory was established at MIT to work on radar as part of the war effort, and a Harvard scholar in the office next to Getting’s was tapped to head the project. He recruited Getting, reasoning that the circuitry Getting had been developing to examine cosmic rays could be applied to radar.

When the war ended in 1945, the Rad Lab was disbanded. Getting chose to stay at MIT as an associate professor of electrical engineering, intending to do research in nuclear power, which he considered a vital field. “We need power for everything we do, from lights to producing fertilizer,” he explained. “This was an opportunity to make what was considered an infinite source of power.”

But the doors to nuclear power research were locked because of concerns over security—only people who had been in nuclear research during the war could get in. So Getting turned his research to electron accelerators, building a 350-mega-electronvolt synchrotron. Lack of a synchrotron industry, however, forced him to focus his consulting on military systems and radar. After war broke out in Korea in 1950, the Air Force wooed him to its staff in the position of assistant for development planning. His career path in military systems was set.

GREATEST BLOOPERS. While Getting’s successes have been formidable, he is the first to admit that he has made his share of mistakes. Early in his career, these errors taught him to pay attention to even the smallest details of an engineering effort.

In 1939 at Harvard, Getting worked feverishly to repeat a German experiment and be the first in the United States to demonstrate fission. Using an old bell jar to create a cloud chamber within which to observe fission reactions, he took thousands of pictures—but none showed fission particles. After Columbia University in New York City announced that it had demonstrated fission, Getting discovered that his bell jar was very old and had been made of boron glass, which absorbed the slow neutrons needed to produce fission of uranium.

The following year, in an attempt to test radar tracking at the Rad Lab, Getting inflated a rubber balloon with hydrogen. Over the balloon he draped reflective aluminum material attached to raw silk. But the balloon rubbed against the silk in the wind, creating a static charge, then a spark, then an explosion that singed Getting’s hair and eyebrows.

When Raytheon in 1950 had a problem with tubes that met their specification tests in the factory but failed in the Navy acceptance tests of the altimeters, production stopped while the problem was investigated. It turned out that a technician making final adjustments was using an unmatched homemade radio-frequency coaxial cable instead of a standard production cable. It cost the company $300,000 to find the error, and throughout his tenure at Raytheon, Getting kept that cable in his desk as a reminder of what can happen when a detail is missed.

This learned obsession with details, which Getting tried to impress on every employee, served the Aerospace Corp. well when it took on the responsibilities of manned space launches. Aerospace oversaw all the launches in the Mercury and Gemini programs, and the company impressed on every contractor the importance of tender loving care—paying attention to every detail. “We never lost a single astronaut,” Getting said. When TLC was reduced, the inevitable human error did slip through.

ENGINEERING ENVIRONMENTS. After his first few years at the Rad Lab, Getting made his first move from engineering into management. But once the lab folded in 1945, he turned down several offers of engineering management jobs to return to university teaching and research. However, he was persuaded in 1950 to move to the Air Force staff, and he never went back to hands-on engineering.

As a manager, Getting believed in treating employees with respect and care, even though this was counter to many corporate philosophies at the time. When he joined Raytheon as vice president, engineering and research, in 1951, the company, like many of its New England competitors, housed its engineers in old brick textile factories, crowding them into large open areas.

But Getting knew that engineering environments could be different, and that AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, N.J., had made a start in effecting such a change by building attractive, landscaped, pleasant facilities for its engineers, giving each a private office. He thought Bell had the right idea and launched a building program at Raytheon on Route 128 outside Boston.

“I had been a working engineer myself,” Getting told Spectrum. “I didn’t want to be one of a thousand. I wanted individuality. Scientists and engineers, if they are any good, want individuality; they want an opportunity to get together with other engineers, but they don’t want to be herded like sheep. And the cost of adequate office space is the smallest part of the total cost of operating a high-tech company.”

Besides prime facilities, Getting advocates giving engineers a chance to get credit for what they accomplish, and as much public recognition as possible. This is not always easy for military contractors, when engineers are barred for security reasons from even mentioning their work to their families.

Max Weiss, a former director of Aerospace’s R&D laboratories and now vice president of Northrop Corp., Los Angles, told Spectrum that Getting seemed able to provide this positive motivation intuitively. “He would take a younger man, put his arm around him, and encourage him, Weiss said. “He gave me a lot of self-confidence and encouraged my initiative. Today we would call it empowerment.”

Ivan Alexander Getting

Date of birth: Jan. 18, 1912

Place of birth: New York City

Height: 182 centimeters (6 feet)

Weight: 93 kilograms (204 pounds)

Family: married twice, to Dorothea (died 1976) and Helen; three children

Education: S.B. 1933, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; D. Phil., 1935, Oxford University

First job: playing piano in a jazz orchestra and organ in a church

Patents: six

Most recent book read:Modern Radar System Analysis by David K. Barton

Favorite kind of music: classical piano

Favorite food: smoked salmon

Least favorite food: broccoli

Favorite expression: “It’s not what I say, it’s what I mean”

Favorite leisure activity: growing orchids

Pet peeve: people trying to explain something when they don’t know what they are talking about

Annual air mileage: 300,000 kilometers

Management credo: “Select good people, give them responsibilities they understand and you understand, and then follow up”

Memberships and awards: 1948 Presidential Medal for Merit; Fellow, President (1978) and Founders Medal, IEEE; Honorary Fellow, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; member, National Academy of Engineering; the Kitty Hawk Award

Since his retirement in 1977, Getting seems barely to have slowed down. He served as IEEE President in 1978, is currently a member of the board of directors of several companies, and is on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board as well as on the Navy Studies Board of the National Research Council—responsibilities that require several trips a month from his home in Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

Northrop vice president Weiss told Spectrum that Getting is invaluable on such boards and committees because he asks penetrating questions in a disarmingly naïve way. “He’ll say: ‘Forgive me, I’m an old man, you’re smarter than I am, you’ll have to explain this to me,’ “ according to Weiss. Then he will zero in with a pointed question.

All these activities leave Getting little time for raising orchids, a hobby he began in the 1930s, or playing the piano. (He occasionally accompanies TRW founder Simon Ramo, a violinist.)

And, since Navstar is not quite completed yet, and plans for future generations are still being made, Getting, now age 79, is still evangelizing.

TO PROBE FURTHER. Ivan Getting published an autobiography entitled All in a Lifetime, Science in the Defense of Democracy (Vantage Press Inc., New York, 1989). For a detailed look at the workings of the Navstar Global Positioning Satellite System, see “Navstar: the all-purpose satellite, IEEE Spectrum, May 1981, pp 35-40.

Originally published in IEEE Spectrum, April 1991, pp. 74-76

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