Shooting the stars Naval Academy: Celestial navigation as passe in Navy training as swordsmanship is to soldiering.


WHEN IT was revealed recently that the U.S. Naval Academy had dropped its long-standing celestial navigation course, an era ended. Graduates of the Annapolis school will no longer be required to master a sextant, know how to read the navigational almanac and "sight reduction" tables or tediously crunch numbers to find their location at sea by the stars.

Instead, they will be expected to know how to punch a button.

For purists, navigating by the stars remains a vital rudiment of seamanship. For centuries, a sextant was the most sophisticated tool available. But global positioning satellites make the sextant as obsolete to the sailor as the rapier is to the soldier.

Romanticists might shed a tear. But each improvement in technology means that certain skills -- mastered over centuries and passed on between generations -- must atrophy. Midshipmen also are no longer required to learn to communicate by semaphore (flags or lights) or determine water depths with a weighted line. Modern radios and depth-finders make those skills superfluous.

This march of technology doesn't just affect officers in training. A century or more ago, most of the population knew how to ride horses and make butter by hand. Today, we don't require teen-agers to take riding lessons, but we do require driver's education. And no one out of necessity makes butter at home, although you do need other skills to be able to buy it in a supermarket. With computerized systems that are far more accurate than "shooting the stars," the academy is rightly acquiescing to superior technology.

However, the academy is not totally erasing celestial navigation from its curriculum. Midshipmen will learn to use four to six stars to fix a position, but they won't have to do the time-consuming manual calculations that previously consumed valuable instruction time. At sea, these mids are more likely to find multiple global positioning systems on the bridge -- and sextants collecting dust in a locker.

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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