The U.S. Naval Academy might be dusting off its stock of sextants soon as it's reviving instruction on the art of celestial navigation after nearly two decades of it not being widely taught.
According to the Capital Gazette, the class that teaches midshipmen how to chart their position based on the sun, moon and stars, is making a comeback in light of the threat natural events and cyberattacks could pose for modern navigation systems.
Quartermaster 2nd Class Darren Maple uses a sextant on the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut (DDG 99). Farragut is on a scheduled deployment in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility. (Photo and caption: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class A.J. Jones/Released via Flickr)
Here's more from the newspaper:
"We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great," said Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rogers, the deputy chairman of the academy's Department of Seamanship and Navigation. "The problem is," he added, "there's no backup."
Among the fleet, the Navy ended all training in celestial navigation in 2006, said Lt. Cmdr. Kate Meadows, a Navy spokeswoman. Then officers' training returned in 2011 for ship navigators, she said. And officials are now rebuilding the program for enlisted ranks; it's expected to begin next fall.
"There's about 10 years when the Navy didn't teach to celestial," said Rogers, the Naval Academy instructor. "New lieutenants, they don't have that instruction."
The academy located in Annapolis, Maryland, made the controversial decision to end celestial navigation courses for midshipmen in 1998, according to the Gazette, but some instruction continued within the Navy itself. Courses on celestial navigation at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy ended about a decade ago, the school's spokesman David Santos, told the newspaper, adding that theories of it and some use of a sextant — a device that measures the angle between objects — remain.
At the time when the Naval Academy's celestial navigation class was cut, the New York Times explained that cadets were still taught how to use the sextant, but instead of doing the math to plot a course, they input data into a computer.
The Gazette reported though that "instruction in celestial navigation ended entirely within years. The 2010 curriculum manual didn't even mention celestial navigation."
Courses on this subject are still taught at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, which is now sharing some of its curriculum with the Naval Academy, according to the Gazette.
"Knowledge of celestial navigation in the GPS era provides a solid back-up form of navigation in the event GPS becomes unreliable for whatever reason," Capt. Timothy Tisch, an instructor in celestial navigation, told the newspaper in a statement. "It is also good professional practice to use one navigational system to verify the accuracy of another."
Capt. Shashi N. Kumar, a dean at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, told Ocean Navigator a few years ago that he could not "imagine calling myself a mariner if I am completely ignorant about celestial navigation.”
At this point, the newspaper reported that starting in 2017 graduates of the Naval Academy will at least have education in the theories of celestial navigation.