Seal Beach man’s equation makes it easier to navigate our world

Tom Logsdon has been recognized as one of the 28 inventors of GPS technology. Courtesy photo

Tom Logsdon honored as an inventor of GPS technology

In a ceremony nearly 50 years in the making, the Queen of England and the United States Air Force have honored 28 professionals for their collective contribution to the invention of a system of global positioning that has given society a tool to literally remake the way it operates.

Tom Logsdon, of Seal Beach, was one of those 28 inventors honored Friday at a special ceremony in Los Angeles. “It was such an honor to be recognized,” he said.

In addition to the presentations, the event premiered a documentary film, “The Lonely Halls,” which tells the story of GPS and Dr. Brad Parkinson, generally accepted as being the “Father of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Logsdon enjoyed an outstanding career at Rockwell (later Boeing) as a rocket scientist. He recognizes his good fortune in being given an essential assignment back when scientists and engineers were still exploring ways to coordinate satellites in space to provide exact positioning on earth.

In addition to the U.S. Air Force, Queen Elizabeth this week announced the “Queen’s Prize for Engineering” will go to the team of 28 inventors, even if only the top four (of which Logsdon was not one) shared a cash prize. Nevertheless, Logsdon is deeply touched by being named as one of the inventors of GPS.

“We have awarded the prize to [an American team of inventors] who have invented a system to enable all of us to know where we are, what time is it and where we are going,” said Lord Browne of Madingly, Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Foundation.

“Everything in the modern world, more or less, today depends on this technology (gps),” he said, including transportation, banking, agriculture, medicine, and the “smart phones in our pockets.”

Back in 1973, however, it was a much different world; the internet was still a defense research project, computers were archaic, and maps were still printed on paper. It was a very long time ago.

Logsdon’s journey had begun in eastern Kentucky, quickly learning to do math magic at Springfield High School, then Eastern Kentucky University, then grad school at the University of Kentucky.

Out west, as the space race heated up, a coastal section of California from Huntington Beach to LAX began to attract America’s best and brightest to populate the incredible array of defense and technology companies engaged in the effort.

As a geometric mathematician, Logsdon got his start at McDonnell Douglas in Santa Monica. Later, at Rockwell, Logsdon remembers his date with destiny in 1973. “My boss called me in and said ‘I have an assignment for you.”

To hear Logsdon tell it, on a day when the Pentagon “was closed for some reason,” the lights in a conference room shone bright as top brass determined they needed a global positioning system using satellites.

They were going to ask for proposals and Rockwell, already a defense contractor, wanted in.

The conversation occurred between Logsdon and his boss, Dick Meston. “We are going to bid on a new satellite constellation,” said Meston, “and we have to be able to see four satellites at every point of the world all the time.” And, Meston told Logsdon, “they can’t be in a straight line across the sky.”

He told Logsdon he had five weeks to figure it out.

Despite the corporate pressure, Logsdon said he was smiling inside because he knew “this was the perfect assignment for a geometric mathematician.”

Assignment in hand, Logsdon went to work. Instead of reaching for his very basic computer or a slide rule, however, Logsdon pulled out his trademark oversize quad pad (4 times) and his color markers. For Logsdon, working in color helps to visualize complex equations and patterns.

Quickly, using equations, Logsdon figured out that the required satellites in the constellation “couldn’t be bunched up,” nor could they be “all on the horizon.”

Then came other challenges, how to figure out how long would it take for a satellite to lap other satellites in the projected orbits?

Given five weeks by Rockwell, Logsdon took only three days before the ‘eureka’ moment. Using a geometric math equation with no more than eight, maybe ten, symbols and enumerators, “ Logsdon figured how the satellites could orbit in a constellation and comply with the requirements necessary to triangulate and create geographic positioning on earth.

‘I just needed scattered geometry to solve this problem,” he said this week.

Logsdon’s “Rockwell Constellation” would eventually consist of three rings of eight orbiting satellites encapsulating the earth. The math magic he’d learned in Kentucky would, for the first time, provide the Pentagon, and eventually, the rest of us, with the orbital geometry necessary for a global positioning system.

Later, once his work was validated by the Pentagon, government contracts awarded to Rockwell and one-by-one, each of the satellites were eventually launched to take their place in the constellation Logsdon had etched onto his quad pad.

The Rockwell rocket scientist would go on to write two books on GPS and give more than 200 speeches around the world on the subject.

After determining the orbits, Logsdon had again used geometry and math to figure out the “force multiplying effects” that the GPS technology could add to various military and other missions. As the technology grew, so did the appetite for knowledge surrounding it and Logsdon was asked to speak from coast-to-coast.

Of course, Logsdon, now 81, has long since retired but is still active. He teaches four GPS courses and has written more than 20 books, including textbooks, GPS, and other subjects. His book, “Six simple creative solutions that shook the world,” became a best seller.

Even today, Logsdon still lectures on GPS and he’s now following newer, competitive technologies being developed by India, Russia, China, Japan and the European Union.

As a rocket scientist, Logsdon made many other contributions to the success of the American space program. He was recognized for increasing the performance of the Saturn V by nearly 5,000 pounds, saving the program $3.5 billion for its remaining missions (equivalent to the lifetime earnings of 1,000 Americans). He also helped mastermind a cryogenically cooled infrared Space Telescope for a Mars mission and other robotic missions headed to asteroids.

In a lighter moment, he once told an ABC television interviewer that the role of a trajectory mathematician was “before the flight, we predict where the space capsule will go. Then, after the flight, we try to explain why it didn’t go there.”

In one of his more notable years at Rockwell, when there were 44 projects turned in to the U.S. Air Force, Logsdon’s survivability assessment project was the only one of Rockwell’s projects to receive a rating of a perfect 10. After that, they nicknamed Logsdon “Bo Derek.”

For Logsdon, it was not about being perfect, but about smart. When given seemingly impossible tasks, he used his mind and color markers to make the world an easier place to navigate.

For the rest of us, we can be happy he found his way here from Eastern Kentucky so many years ago.