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Gladys Mae West

By Emily Mercado on Mar 24, 2022 11:48:58 AM

Gladys Mae West

Gladys Mae West made the world more accessible by contributing to the development of the GPS. West, born in Sutherland, Virginia was raised on her family’s farm where she worked most of her childhood. Her early experience in the farming industry created a yearning for education. Due to her family’s financial situation West prioritized excelling in school to earning an opportunity to go to university.

West’s dreams became a reality when earned a full-ride scholarship to Virginia State College for becoming valedictorian. At Virginia State College West was a part of the iconic Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Notable members of AKA include Dr. Maya Angelou and Vice President Kamala Harris. The racial climate of Virginia made it difficult to secure a job which led West to teach. While teaching mathematics West pursued a master's degree in mathematics at her alma mater. 

The U.S Naval Weapons Laboratory made history hiring West a year after she graduated. West was only the second black woman to be hired and one of four black employees. West’s first project after training was the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator or NORC. The NORC program helped establish the motion of Pluto relative to Neptune. West’s work on this project earned her a merit award with the navy. 

After earning this award West shifted her focus on creating calculations for satellite orbits. West became the project manager in 1978 for the first earth-orbiting satellite specializing in measuring ocean depths. The SeaSat satellite program led to the GeoSat satellite which measures geoid height. West also created guides to outline the use of the GeoSat satellite. 

West worked at this laboratory for an astonishing 42 years. In her time there she earned a second master's in public administration from the University of Oklahoma. Also during her time at the laboratory she met and fell in love with Ira V. West, another black mathematician. West had achieved balance in her life attending church, having an active social life, and mothering three children. West also took the social responsibility of having a full-time housekeeper. 

Gladys Mae West is the quintessential black woman achieving the American dream.  West is a part of an uncovering of history and the inclusion of women and people of color in history. West retired from the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory at 70 but continues to work. She completed her Ph.D. in public administration at Virginia Polytechnic Institute post-retirement. In 2018 both the Virginia Senate and the Air force commended West for her contributions in mathematics. With the Air Force West was inducted to the Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. This is one of the highest honors that can be given in the Air Force. Although Gladys Mae West is retired she continues to speak about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. At Deboer's Auto, we thank and congratulate Mrs. West for opening doors for women and people of color. If it weren’t for West we wouldn't know where to go. 

Emily Mercado

Written by Emily Mercado