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Satellite shmatellite!

An Octant

An Octant

As a teenager, I went on one or two road trips with my father. The one I remember most clearly was a drive to Wichita, KS to see one of his aunts. We really didn’t know the town very well, but had to get around, so what did we do?

No, we didn’t use a GPS. They probably hadn’t even been thought of at that point.

We did what I still do when on the road today. Out came a good, old-fashioned folded map. The closest I get to using technology to navigate is printing a map from the internet.

So why, when we have an established GPS network, would anyone do that? Simple. A map, once printed, doesn’t depend on signal strength or batteries. Yes, it may be inaccurate and it can’t show things like construction zones or current traffic, but those rarely affect the route you take.

It wasn’t that long ago when even maps were considered a luxury. So how did anyone get from one place to another?

They looked up. Past voyagers found their path by watching the movement of stars and the Sun using devices like sextants and octants, which measure angles between a given star and the horizon.

Interestingly, as we venture farther and farther away from Earth, knowing how to do this becomes even more important that it used to be. There are no GPS satellites around Mars, or Europa, or even the Moon. How would this help a spacefarer when there is no horizon to refer to? Such a device could still measure the angle between a given star and a fixed point, which allows them to plot their position and know which way they’re heading.

So why am I mentioning this?

Do you remember the story of Apollo 13?

Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Technology gets more dependable every day, it simply isn’t always available.

Should this make you nervous? No.

It’s still great to explore.

And dream.

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