Almost 20 years after the last class of midshipman at the Naval Academy learned how to navigate by the stars, celestial navigation has once again entered the classroom.
The renewed focus on the old has nothing to do with maritime lore or when life was measured by years before the mast, but rather because of the emerging cyber-security threat, according to a report in the Annapolis, Md-based Capital Gazette.
“We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great,” Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rogers, the deputy chairman of the academy’s Department of Seamanship and Navigation, told the Capital Gazette. “The problem is, there’s no backup.”
But just because celestial instruction is back, that doesn’t mean these midshipmen are going to be the Horatio Hornblowers of the 21st century. According to the Gazette report, instruction is limited to three hours and, at the moment, just basic theory.
In addition to the Academy’s renewed program, Naval ROTC detachments will soon begin pilot programs at a few schools scattered across the country, according to the report.
For fleet naval forces, celestial navigation was reinstated for ship navigators in 2011 after all celestial classes were shuttered in 2006 and, according to the Gazette, will soon be implemented for enlisted ranks as well.
According to the Gazette, the Navy isn’t the only seafaring branch that has shunned the sextant. The Coast Guard ended its celestial navigation courses a decade ago, though some cadets use sextants during training periods aboard the Coast Guard’s white-sided tall ship Eagle.
Even though the Coast Guard and the Navy’s love affair with the night sky ended years ago, the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY has continuously taught celestial navigation, and has even helped the Naval Academy rebuild its program, according to the Gazette.
The decline of the sextant can be linked to the advent and launch of the GPS system and its satellites, but also to the older, less-known LORAN stations, short for Long Range Navigation.
LORAN, which was first fielded during World War II, used a series of stations located across the globe to locate ships and other objects using radio waves and triangulation. While GPS is known to be accurate within feet, LORAN was accurate within miles (though newer variants reduced this margin greatly). Currently, the majority of LORAN stations have been decommissioned. Under the Coast Guard the last LORAN-C stations were active until 2009 but were closed because of budget restraints.