FALCON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — There is little but prairie surrounding the carefully guarded buildings. From the time authorized personnel slide their personalized badges through the card reader and punch in a four-digit access code, they have 15 seconds to pass through a door leading to the master control station.
Down a long hallway, seven people in blue jumpsuits work at computer terminals. At their charge is the planet's largest constellation of satellites, 26 in all, each the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, hurling through space at 8,600 mph.
"We have about 165 great Americans keeping this system operational 24 hours a day," says Lt. Col. Joe Squatrito, commander of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron.
Nearby is a room where temperature and humidity are controlled and time, monitored by the U.S. Naval Observatory, is broken down to 370-trillionths of a second.
All this security, all the satellites, all the precise work of all these great Americans can help save lives in war. In peace, they can guide emergency workers to victims of fires or earthquakes, or help locate you if you are lost or stranded. They can also help athletes train.
And when you're teeing off at the Pelican Hill Golf Club, overlooking the scenic Pacific shore south of Newport Beach, they can help save you from the bunkers.
The Global Positioning System was developed as a military navigation tool, first used in Somalia and later in the Persian Gulf, guiding troops through desert terrain void of geographical reference points.
But in the private sector, it has triggered an all-out sprint to develop new applications as GPS, a means of pinpointing location, is integrated with communications networks, mapping systems and other technologies.
Last year, Vice President Al Gore predicted that GPS would become an $8-billion industry by the end of the century. Some say it will change how we live.
And here behind locked doors at Falcon Air Force Base is where the frenzy quietly begins. If you have ever been asked, "Where are you?" or have ever awakened and wondered that yourself, these folks can truly tell you.
In terms of latitude, longitude and even altitude, GPS quickly provides coordinates to anyone with a receiver. Through GPS technology, virtually every square inch on the planet is given an address.
GPS allows us to establish Point A, a crucial bit of information if we're trying to get to Point B, whether we're in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a rental car, police unit, airplane, sailboat, golf cart or on foot.
Receivers, decreasing in size and price, are available for less than $200 and approach the size of a wristwatch. Some systems are so accurate they are used in surveying and mapping, measuring the growth of mountains, the movement of glaciers.
"They're going to continue coming up with things we haven't even thought of yet because it's so precise," Squatrito says. "We're getting it down to the point where I can go find somebody, walk right up to them in pitch-black darkness and, boom, bump right into him."
The system became operational in 1993 with less than a dozen satellites and limited coverage capabilities. Global coverage, requiring at least 24 satellites, began two years ago. The system also transmits time, guaranteeing accuracy within 28 nanoseconds (billionths of a second), and detects nuclear detonations anywhere on Earth.
The satellites transmit codes on two frequencies, one limited to military use. It's more precise than the code available to civilians, which is intentionally degraded out of concerns that it might be used against the military.
Last year, President Clinton issued a directive to bring the strength and accuracy of the civilian code closer to that of the military. And private industry already has developed technology to increase accuracy, in some cases to the foot.
Or even the centimeter.
In everyday life, of course, knowing our latitude, longitude and altitude isn't all that helpful.
"GPS by itself is sort of like electricity by itself," says Glen Gibbons, editor of GPS World magazine. "Until you have created a tool and integrated it with other information and other technologies, it doesn't do much for you."
Seeing potential requires vision. Charles Trimble had quit his job at Hewlett-Packard and started a business in the late 1970s before he heard about the coming of GPS, a technology that grew from concern about navigation shortcomings during the Vietnam War.
"I knew it was going to be a long time coming," Trimble says, "and I was wondering how any small company could figure out how to get in at the beginning and survive until it became a reality."
Trimble turned to history and Alexander Graham Bell.
"When he came up with the telephone, obviously he didn't see the telecommunication industry that we're exploring today," Trimble says.