Navy to resume navigating by the stars

 Celestial navigation
CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

What to do when GPS fails? Look to the sky.

It’s safe to assume that the U.S. Navy has some of the most advanced navigational equipment known to mankind. So advanced in fact, that around a decade ago they stopped training Navy service members in the fine art of celestial navigation. Who needs charts and sextant when you have a computer?

Finding one’s location using the stars dates back thousands of years; the ancient Polynesians used stars and constellations to help guide their outrigger canoes across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, notes Geoff Brumfiel on NPR. It was a tried and true method of plotting your way across water, and one that was used well into the 20th century. But when the military began launching GPS satellites in the 1970s, it was the beginning of the end for celestial navigation.

Or so it seemed.

But as Brumfiel reports, the U.S. Navy is bringing back the sextant:

The Navy and other branches of the U.S. military are becoming increasingly concerned, in part, that they may be overly reliant on GPS. "We use it to synchronize all military operations, we use it to navigate everywhere – it's just something the U.S. military can't live without," says Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer now with the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that studies security issues in outer space. In a big war, the GPS satellites could be shot down. Or, more likely, their signal could be jammed or hacked.

In addition, the Navy wants to return to some of the basics. Electronic navigation systems have become so sophisticated that not much training is required. It makes a lot of sense for those serving on the seas to actually understand the fundamentals. (The image below looks at the fundamentals, 18th-century style, from the 1728 Cyclopaedia.)

Celestial navigationWikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0
"You know, I would equate it to blindly following the navigation system in your car: If you don't have an understanding of north/south/east/west, or perhaps where you're going, it takes you to places you didn't intend to go," says Rear Adm. Michael White, who heads the Navy's training. At least once in the past 10 years a Navy ship has run aground when the electronic navigation system failed.

While the Navy’s decision to resume teaching celestial navigation is all about military preparedness, it nonetheless serves to illustrate, rather poetically, the extent to which technology so radically detaches us from the natural world. We have become so reliant on our devices to guide us through life that we risk losing the ability to know how to do it ourselves, and certain interactions with nature are decidedly lost. When was the last time you appreciated a tree as a landmark in driving directions, looked at the clouds to gauge the weather, or peered at the heavens to find your way north?


Navy to resume navigating by the stars
What to do when GPS fails? Look to the sky.

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