Like the rest of us, the U.S. Naval Academy is trying to figure out a way to outsmart hackers. And they've found one, by returning to a time when hackers (and computers) didn't exist.
According to the Capital Gazette, the academy is bringing back its celestial navigation classes. The courses were eliminated back in 2006, though the courses had been decreasing in intensity for years before. The New York Times reported in 1998:
The United States Naval Academy said yesterday that midshipmen would continue to learn to use the sextant, the wedge-shaped navigational device that assists the plotting of a ship's course on a map. But the Academy added that instead of performing a tedious 22-step mathematical calculation to plot the course, midshipmen will feed the raw data into a computer.
That decision was met with relief by students. The Baltimore Sun noted back in 1998 that "no tears will be shed by midshipmen, who use words such as 'silliness' and 'unnecessary' to describe their many hours wrestling with the calculations of 'cel-nav,' as they call it." Students had always found the course difficult—years earlier, in 1974, more than 60 students were caught cheating on a celestial navigation exam, and seven were expelled over the incident.
So it should come as no surprise that eventually, the academy phased the class out completely. The Gazette reports that in 2006, midshipmen were no longer being trained in the art of celestial navigation. Deputy chairman of the school's Department of Seamanship and Navigation, Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rogers, explained that "We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great." But, he added, "the problem is… there's no backup." Meaning, if GPS (which replaced the sextant as the academy's primary navigation tool) goes out, seamen are out of luck.
Now, the academy is apparently in the process of phasing celestial navigation back in. Since 2011, a 12-hour celestial navigation course has been offered to ship navigators.
Earlier this year, more courses were introduced. The Gazette reports:
The Navy reinstated the subject in the manual issued two months ago. The first midshipmen to receive training were juniors during this past summer school. Future classes will learn theories of celestial navigation during an advanced navigation course. And the Class of 2017 will be the first to graduate with the reinstated instruction.
But the academy isn't bring the classes back in full force. "This is the first semester we added it in, so we're just baby-stepping it… we just added the theory," said instructor Lt. Christine Hirsch. Which is good news for ranks, but also maybe for hackers.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.