Unintended benefits

Joe’s post on the history of East/West flight routes led me to read the Wikipedia article on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was shot down by the USSR for entering Soviet airspace without authorization. The article then linked to this US State Department history of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which you may remember was built by the United States military, which contained the following fascinating bit of info.

In 1983, Soviet jet interceptors shot down a Korean Air civilian airliner carrying 269 passengers that had mistakenly entered Soviet airspace.

Because crew access to better navigational tools might have prevented the disaster, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive guaranteeing that GPS signals would be available at no charge to the world when the system became operational. The commercial market has grown steadily ever since.

So in short, if KAL007 had not accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace (their registered flight plan took them within 17 miles of the boundary) the US government might never have opened up the GPS network to unrestricted civilian use, and might even have restricted its use to military/government use, or perhaps only to large corporate customers in the private sector, or used the little-known GPS encryption capabilities (which are built into the network, and only supposed to be invoked for military reasons.) While GPS probably would have made its way into commercial aircraft like KAL007, it is unlikely that the unfettered, unencrypted, subscription-free access that allows us to our automobile navigators and GPS-equipped cell phones and digital cameras would have been granted. I’m not saying that every one of us who enjoys consumer GPS should be thanking the Soviet military for their Sept 1, 1983 massacre of civilians, but this is a good example of how so much progress is based on unexpected and unplanned connections.

3 thoughts on “Unintended benefits”

  1. This reminds me of the link Tom Barnett pointed out between 9/11 and the wider availability of AIDS drugs in the developing world… described in more detail here. “System perturbation,” he calls it.

Comments are closed.