GPS as We Know It Happened Because of Ronald Reagan

1983: President Reagan signs an executive order allowing civilian use of the Pentagon’s Global Positioning System.

GPS as We Know It Happened Because of Ronald Reagan
President Reagan allowed civilian use of the Pentagon's Global Positioning System as part of his response to the shoot-down of Korean Air Flight??007 (Photograph by Getty Images)
Photograph by Getty Images

1983 President Reagan signs an executive order allowing civilian use of the Pentagon’s Global Positioning System.

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 left Anchorage, Alaska, on Aug. 30, 1983, with 269 people on board, strayed into Soviet airspace on its way to Seoul, and was shot down by Russian forces. Part of Ronald Reagan’s response was to allow civilian use of GPS, developed by the U.S. military in the 1970s as a Cold War weapon, to help planes avoid hostile airspace. Private businesses and scientists quickly realized that GPS receivers could help surveying and other industries, too.

In the early days, commercial GPS was much less accurate than the systems used by the military. GPS satellites work by sending out two signals: the course assignment signal, which locates a receiver to within about 100 meters, and the precise code, or p-code, which gives the exact location of a receiver. The military initially encrypted the p-code for fear that GPS would be a handy way for enemy militaries to guide weapons. By the mid-1990s, sophisticated GPS users had figured out ways to get around this encryption. The Clinton administration eventually chose to stop degrading the signals, deciding instead to focus on ways to shut GPS down in specific areas during times of war.

Once companies began making money on GPS, they plowed it into improving their equipment in ways the government hadn’t foreseen, ultimately leading to the advent of Google Maps, turn-by-turn directions built into the dashboards of cars, and fitness-tracking services such as Strava and MapMyFitness. But the path from Reagan’s decision to these consumer products is clear only in retrospect, says Jim Cantrell, chief executive officer of consultant Strategic Space Development. Cantrell used GPS to help track research balloons soon after Reagan’s order. “Nobody I know of was talking about commercial applications back then,” he says. “It’s not like they flipped on the switch and everyone ran to it.”

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