Bradford Parkinson


Bradford Parkinson : biography

February 16, 1935 –

When Parkinson first took over 621B, the program was in its earliest stages, with most of the work being theoretical. Naturally, Parkinson’s sterling technical background proved to be a tremendous asset during this period. However, as the project gained momentum, Parkinson’s responsibilities shifted to managing the program, and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that the Pentagon and the United States Congress were fully supportive of the initiative. His political and managerial skill were invaluable to the success of the program, demonstrating a rare combination of excellence in both the technical and non-technical domains. In 1978 the first working prototype of a GPS system was launched, and Parkinson’s years of effort were validated. 621B transitioned to the larger NAVSTAR program, and, rather than taking an administrative position at the Pentagon, Parkinson decided to retire from the Air Force.

Private sector

After retiring from the Air Force, Parkinson spent one year teaching, but then decided to enter the private sector. He first was appointed Vice President of the Space Systems Group at Rockwell International, Inc., where he was involved in developing the space shuttle. Following his work at Rockwell, Parkinson joined Intermetrics, a software company based in Boston. Parkinson was a vice president at Intermetrics, and was heavily involved in taking the company public in 1982. 1984, Parkinson accepted a research position at Stanford University. However, Parkinson later returned to the private sector in 1999, where he served as the acting CEO of Trimble Navigation, a producer of advanced positioning systems. Today, Parkinson sits on the boards of several large navigation-related companies, including Trimble Navigation, EMS Technologies, and Navigation Technology Ventures.

Teaching and professorship

Early in his career, Parkinson was an academic instructor for test pilots at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, but soon moved on to other projects. Immediately after retiring from the Air Force, Parkinson returned to Colorado, taking a position teaching mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. However, after only one year, Parkinson’s budding academic career was cut short by his detour into the private sector. After five years outside of academia, however, Parkinson returned to his alma mater Stanford, where he became research professor focused on GPS and related technologies. After several years he was given tenure, and was named to the endowed "Edward C. Wells" Chair of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Beyond his research duties, Parkinson was also an active and well-liked teacher, creating and leading the popular “Managing Innovation” course. Today, Parkinson is a professor emeritus at Stanford.


Parkinson attended the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. While studying there, Parkinson discovered he had a deep interest in controls engineering, which was not a research focus of the Navy at that time. Fortunately, one of Parkinson’s electrical engineering professors was an Air Force officer, and urged him to consider switching military branches. Parkinson also knew he wanted to get a Ph. D. later in life, and the Air Force was more receptive to graduate and post-graduate education at this time. For these reasons, Parkinson accepted a commission in the Air Force rather than the Navy after graduation.

Immediately after graduation, Parkinson’s superiors offered to send him to study in MIT’s “Course Sixteen” a well-known aeronautics and astronautics program. However, having just joined the Air Force, Parkinson decided that he would prefer to spend some time on regular duty to get a feel for the branch. After two years in Southeast Asia, he did matriculate into the MIT program, studying controls engineering, inertial guidance, and electrical engineering. Interestingly, Parkinson worked in the lab of Charles Stark Draper, the namesake for the prestigious Draper Prize which Parkinson went on to win later in his life. After two years of study, Parkinson graduated with a Master of Science in Aeronautics in 1961.

Parkinson was then assigned to work at Central Inertial Guidance Test Facility at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. There he continued to study inertial guidance and electrical and controls engineering, gaining a deep understanding of both the academic issues at hand and their application to the actual battlefield. After three years at Holloman, Parkinson was assigned to a Ph. D. program at Stanford University by Robert H. Cannon Jr., graduating in 1966.