How a great technology center helped advance surveying GPS and geospatial applications. 

In the early stages of World War II, Huntsville, Ala., was selected by the U.S. War Department as a prime location for the manufacture and storage of chemical warfare munitions. The new Huntsville Arsenal was soon neighbored by the addition of the Redstone Ordnance Plant. Later, the two were officially merged together as the Redstone Arsenal and have since continued to serve as a highly respected resource with our national defense. After the war ended, a team of German rocket scientists, led by pioneer Dr. Wernher von Braun, came in to promote the U.S. military’s Ordnance Guided Missile Center. His team developed the rocket that orbited the first U.S. satellite on January 31, 1958.1 Later that year, the announcement came that the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would oversee all non-military related space research.2

In 1960, NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) was established on a 1,200 acre site within the Redstone Arsenal.3 Dr. von Braun became the first director of the organization where the rockets were designed sending man to the moon. Later, MSFC was where the propulsion systems for the space shuttle program were developed and modules for the International Space Station were designed and built, and it is where the next generation of spacecraft, the Space Launch Systems (SLS), are now being developed.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center has many unique displays, including the Saturn V Rocket.

Prior to his departure from MSFC, Dr. von Braun approached the Alabama Legislature with the idea of creating a museum to commemorate Huntsville’s role with the advancement of space technology. Upon reaching approval from within the state legislature and its voters, the U.S. Army agreed to donate a tract of land located along the outskirts of the Redstone Arsenal for the construction of the new museum. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) was officially opened in 1970; today, it features hundreds of pieces of space hardware on exhibit for public viewing. The museum also houses a library of von Braun’s personal notes and papers, all of which have been carefully cataloged for use by researchers and scholars. Nearly 17 million tourists have visited the USSRC since the museum first opened its doors. Currently, the facility hosts more than 500,000 visitors annually, including many students who venture out on school field trips.4

In May 2003, officials with the Geospatial Training and Application Center (GTAC), then a division of the USSRC, installed a continuously operating reference station (CORS).5 This station would be installed and monitored at the USSRC facility while having an operating range of approximately 50 miles. Its purpose is to track incoming data from GPS satellites, manage this data while serving GPS users, work to recover the data needed for post processing, and retransmission of the data which is used for real-time field positioning.6 In 2005, a statewide initiative was launched to establish a network of CORS sites throughout Alabama. The goal of the initiative is to provide a consistent network of GPS correction signal data, to advance its availability, have timely distribution, and to encourage the widespread use of GPS correction data and technology for many statewide applications. This cooperative effort with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (USSRC), National Geodetic Survey (NGS), Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), and The Alabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors (ASPLS) serves many beneficiaries including engineering, land surveying, geospatial sciences, state and local governments, agriculture, natural resource management, environmental services, public utilities, water and sewer boards, law enforcement, mining operations, construction, emergency management, and homeland security.7

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center has many unique displays, including the Space Shuttle exhibit.

The key element with any GPS is accuracy. As the demand for this technology grows and plays an ever important role with the higher accuracies found in many applications including engineering and surveying, so does the need for reliable control (base) stations. The higher degree of accuracy found with these systems is obtained by incorporating the use of differential GPS. This system requires a base control station like with CORS to serve as a benchmark or control monument found in traditional surveying. A secondary GPS receiver called a rover works out in the field. Together, the two systems can share data and provide a higher degree of accuracy as needed. In engineering and land surveying, the implementation of CORS can help reduce the need for having an extensive network of physical control point monuments that might otherwise be lost or disturbed out in the field.

The CORS located at the USSRC is a Leica GPS Reference Station, but it is compatible with all major makes of GPS survey equipment. The GPS data used for post processing is stored in the industry standard RINEX (Receiver Independent Exchange) file format. Data for real time GPS out in the field can be exported in other various formats including RTCM, CMR, and Leica Standard. This ensures its support for Leica, Ashtech, Trimble, Topcon, Javad, and other brands of GPS equipment used for a wide range of applications.8

NASA Engineer Cody Goodman collects data through GPS along a busy highway corridor and out ahead of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

In 1997, a study was funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The study concluded that as the use of GPS and remote sensing technology grows, so does the demand for a well-trained workforce equipped with the proper knowledge and skills which are needed to support its wide range of public and private applications with geospatial sciences. Currently there is a national shortage of qualified professionals needed to fulfill the vacancies associated with geospatial technology and its related disciplines. Since its inception in 2000, the GTAC has worked to bridge this gap with technology and training. The GTAC features a state-of-the-art learning facility that includes a research laboratory for new product development and a mobile wireless lab for conducting remote training exercises. Like the USSRC, the GTAC is operated by the State of Alabama and offers assistance to various government agencies.

Dr. Werhner von Braun was a true visionary when it came to space exploration. After making it through the tensions of World War II, his work with the U.S. government eventually landed him and his team at Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal. Since then, our country has benefitted from the advancement of resulting technology while Huntsville’s role with the launching of our nation’s space program has earned it the nick-name of “The Rocket City.” Today, the continued teamwork of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the Geospatial Training and Applications Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Marshal Space Flight Center and other various agencies follows von Braun’s scientific logic by working to organize the necessary resources and develop the right solutions. Huntsville’s continued role with aerospace technology supports ongoing success with many geospatial applications including GPS surveying, GIS, and other related mapping sciences. These and other disciplines can all benefit from the use of ground-based CORS and the accuracy it brings forth. With its enhanced degree of precision here on earth, the sky is truly the limit.


1.         Davis, Jan, Introduction, “Huntsville – Madison County: To The Edge of The Universe,” Memphis, TN. Towery Publishing. 1999.
2.         Nicaise, Placide D., “Huntsville and the von Braun Rocket Team: The Real Story,” Monterey, CA. Scientists and Friends.
3.         Dunar, Andrew J. and Stephen P. Waring, “Power to Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center 1960-1990,” Washington, DC. NASA. 1999.
4.         “The birth of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.” 29 Nov 2011,
5.         “Continuously Operating Reference Station (CORS).” 29 Nov 2011,
6.         Ibid.
7.         Ibid.
8.         Ibid.

For more information about USSRC and GTAC,