A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2018 Jul 22, 14:35 -0700
Richard Easton, two weeks ago you wrote:
"Many recent articles and books claim that GPS was a military only system prior to the shooting down of KAL007. I discuss this in a recent article."
Yes, you're right. Many recent sources repeat a schematic, simplifed version of events. The history of recent technology is filled with these "just so" stories. Among other cases, there's the idea that the "world wide web" was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, and the idea that the Internet was invented by DARPA. Both of these have some truth to them, but they are simplifications. These shorthand stories are convenient and they're appealing precisely because they're simplistic, seem a bit improbable (and are therefore fun to retell), and contain some degree of truth --like any good just-so story. Such stories are often backed up by "memoir history". That's a period of time in recent history during which authorities and witnesses of all stripes tell us that they "know" what happened historically because they "lived through it". That's fine, but of course even those who lived through history have imperfect memories and, more importantly, are influenced by the politics, historical models, and "just so" stories that they have encountered in their own lives. After memoir history, usually starting somewhat more than fifty years after the events in question, we get into real history, in which researchers attempt to uncover and analyze primary-source evidence and move beyond the stories and the memoirs.
The "just so" story that implies that civilian use of GPS originated with that Reagan era proclamation following the Soviet shootdown of KAL007 also has some truth to it, which I think you may have glossed over in your article. It's certainly true that civilian application of the technology was expected from the beginning of GPS, and you're right to emphasize that, Richard. The special issue of the Journal of Navigation in the summer of 1978 which was devoted entirely to GPS includes some prophetic comments speculating on the revolutions (yes, plural) that GPS would enable in the civilian economy (can't find my copy right now).
Civilian applications were permitted very early during the development of GPS, and more applications, including in civilian aviation, were planned as the Pentagon slowly rationed out this premium product to the masses, on its own leisurely schedule. But there is a difference between government permission to use a primarily-military technology in certain low-risk applications and government approval of a technology for mission-critical applications. Until KAL007, the FAA and its Congressional overseers were moving only slowly to encourage the use of GPS in commercial aircraft, and the Pentagon hoped to charge onerous user fees for the service. That's the way I have understood it, but correct me if it's wrong: the FAA and the US DOD did not sanction GPS (at no service cost) for navigation aboard commercial aircraft until some months after Reagan's directive. So something important did change following that tragedy and in direct consequence from it. Civilian availability of GPS in minor applications was rapidly converted into civilian dependence upon GPS in high-risk, mission-critical applications.