Navy Goes Back to the Future: Naval Academy Students Learning Celestial Navigation
For centuries, explorers from around the world – guys like Magellan, Drake, and Columbus – used celestial navigation, or CELNAV, to navigate by the sun, moon, and stars. With the establishment of the U.S. Navy on Oct. 13, 1775, our Sailors joined a long-standing tradition of navigating by celestial bodies.
But roughly 225 years later, the Navy began phasing out the ancient science of CELNAV in favor of more advanced Global Positioning Systems, or GPS. Quartermasters no longer placed an emphasis on the skill and midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy and Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) units around the country were no longer taught how to navigate this way. Sextants around the fleet became artifacts of a by-gone knowledge.
That is, until recently.
Late last year, the Naval Academy began working CELNAV courses back into the regular curriculum of students. While the Navy has been training navigators at the Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, Rhode Island since 2011, the class of 2017 will be the first Naval Academy class in more than a decade to graduate with a fundamental understanding and appreciation for the self-sufficient art of CELNAV. NROTC pilot programs are also set to begin at the Philadelphia Consortium, University of Rochester, and Auburn University. On the enlisted side, CELNAV will soon be required training once again for quartermasters, who assist navigators.
Mastering traditional methods of navigation can be complex, involving complicated calculations using measurement instruments coupled with information from charts and almanacs, but the ability to know exactly where in the world a ship is without relying on electronics is an emergent need.
Not only does CELNAV have the ability to be used anywhere in the world (no blind spots or issues with electronic coverage gaps), but it cannot be jammed by adversarial countermeasures, nor does it give off any signals that could be detected. Moreover, the Navy favors redundancy where possible in order to offer more options to our ships. Navigating their warship is a fundamental skill for each ship’s crew and being able to do it without the aid of inertial systems or GPS is an important alternative. Bringing
foundational navigation training back to our officers, and our ships, means we will be less dependent on electronics and, ultimately, a stronger fleet.
So the next time you look up at the stars, take a moment and imagine the generations of Sailors who’ve looked to them to navigate their way across the seas. Now rest secure in the knowledge that today’s U.S. Navy Sailors around the world are looking up at the sky, peering through their sextants, and using ancient mariner’s knowledge to chart a course for the future, steadfastly standing the watch for America.