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Ivan A. Getting, 91; Developer of GPS

October 18, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

Ivan A. Getting, a physicist and electrical engineer who envisioned and then pushed for the development of today's ubiquitous Global Positioning System, has died. He was 91.

Getting, who was also the founding president of El Segundo-based Aerospace Corp., died in his sleep Oct. 11 at his home in Coronado, Calif. No exact cause of death was announced by the family. During World War II, Getting directed the Division of Fire Control and Army Radar at MIT; his group developed the microwave tracking radar that was credited with destroying 95% of the V-1 cruise bombs used by Germany against England. He later worked on anti-aircraft gun technology and ballistic missile and space launch systems.

His work earned him dozens of major awards. His achievements were capped in February when Getting was named a co-recipient of the National Academy of Engineering's $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize. The Draper prize is considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineering and has been given to developers of microchips, jet engines and the Internet.

"His life was just one great accomplishment after another," said George Paulikas, a physicist who worked with Getting at Aerospace Corp. for three decades.

GPS, now an everyday tool for hikers and drivers, as well as the military, is considered the most important achievement in navigation in the 20th century. "It's had such a profound effect on the world at large, one has to conclude it's a remarkable engineering achievement," said Bob Evans, an engineer and venture capitalist in Menlo Park who headed the committee that granted the Draper award just nine months before Getting's death.

"We're very glad we gave it to him," Evans said. "There was some concern on the timing, because he was getting very old."

Getting conceived the idea for GPS after years of work on Air Force guidance and navigation systems.

"As far as GPS is concerned, he got it first," said Brad Parkinson, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and the co-recipient of the Draper award for his role in building the GPS system used today.

Parkinson, who was an Air Force colonel at the time, led a group of engineers who designed and put into operation the constellation of GPS satellites that orbit the planet and calculate positions on Earth with precision. But the team faced vociferous critics and several attempts to have the project canceled, Parkinson said.

It was Getting -- an aerospace veteran who was widely respected for his technical expertise, integrity and leadership skills -- who ushered the program through. "Without his advocacy, GPS would have been impossible," Parkinson said.

The first GPS satellites were launched in 1978 and the system became fully operational by 1993. By 2000, it had become a relatively inexpensive tool used by hikers and boaters. GPS is used in automated farm tractors and many other commercial applications.

Getting was an avid user of the technology himself and had GPS antennae installed on his roof.

"He was not only an inventor, he used it as a hobby," Paulikas said.

From 1960 until his retirement in 1977, Getting served as president of Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit corporation that provides research and development services for the Department of Defense and other government agencies, focusing on space and missile systems. Previously, he was a vice president for research and engineering at Raytheon Co., where he was responsible for the development of the Sparrow III and Hawk missile systems.

"It's really the passing of an era," Parkinson said. "One of the giants is gone."

Getting, who pronounced his first name "Ee-von," was known for his gregarious personality and piano playing during parties, said Paulikas, who added that Getting had been "sharp as a tack until the end."

Getting was born in New York City in 1912, reared in Pittsburgh and educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Oxford University.

He is survived by his wife, Helen; daughter Nancy G. Secker of Green Bay, Wis.; sons Ivan C. Getting of Boulder, Colo., Peter A. Getting of Iowa City, Iowa; and several grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Coronado.

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