Steve Lagna

Published December 5, 2017

Steve Lagna was one of the original GPS systems engineers and youngest founding members of the original USAF government program office that designed, built, and deployed the first generation GPS equipment in the 1970s.

How did you become involved in the development of GPS?

My career in the aerospace industry began when I became an engineering student intern with the Federal civil service, just one month before astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.

I was a year-round intern, and the workload was a challenge to be sure.  Those two years as a student intern, and later as a participant in GPS, from its inception through to the first launch, remain a career highlight and a seminal first job experience.

I continue to be grateful that I was given that unique opportunity and great privilege of working with, and learning from, the best and the brightest engineers in the United States Air Force and the Aerospace Corporation during my last two years at CSULB.

What classes did you find particularly useful in your career?

CSULB offered two classes that aligned with my aspirations and preparations for a career in the aerospace business. 

The first was a mechanical engineering course taught by Dr. Bruce Torby that addressed the principles of dynamics associated with satellite orbits and ballistic missile trajectories. 

The second was a elective communications theory course in my final semester that addressed modulation theory/techniques and receiver/transmitter design principals. 

What was your role when you worked on GPS?

I had two major focuses in the early going of the program in addition to being part of the technical team that managed those first GPS contractors.

First was serving as program office lead for the GPS navigation signal design effort, affording me the opportunity to work with recognized experts in satellite communications systems and spread spectrum techniques. It was like earning an advanced degree on-the-job.

Second was writing specifications and other procurement documentation used to solicit industry proposals, and subsequently participating in source selection activities that awarded contracts to the original set of contractors to build the first-generation GPS satellites, ground support system and the user equipment. Our program office took on the role of systems integrator, and that created the perfect opportunity for me to learn and hone my skills as a systems engineer and systems integrator early on. 

What did you do after working on the first GPS?

After leaving the GPS program office and the Federal civil service in late 1978, I joined Stanford Telecommunications and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in the San Francisco Bay Area. During my career at these two companies, I contributed to the concept formulation, design, development, integration, test, deployment and sustainment of some important military satellite systems.

Final Thoughts 

Participating in student intern opportunities is an invaluable component of your personal and professional development. I believe my work as a student intern in conjunction with my studies at CSULB were absolutely the key to understanding what my interests were and what I wanted to do professionally, and the primary enabler of my subsequent successful career as a systems engineer and systems integrator.

I had the great pleasure and honor of being reunited with Dr. Brad Parkinson and many of my former colleagues and fellow founding members of the first GPS program office at our 40-year reunion held in San Luis Obispo in April 2017. The documentary filmmaker present at the reunion was afforded the unique opportunity to interview many of the original program office players, me included, for the purpose of making a documentary film titled “The Lonely Halls Meeting”. More information about this documentary film is available on IMDb. The documentary is the story about the very beginnings of GPS back in the early-mid 1970’s.