Mankind’s Greatest Navigational Achievement

Traveling from one place on the earth to another is a phenomenal accomplishment. To get from one place on the globe, precisely to a predetermined destination against incredible odds is, in a word, amazing. How were we able to get from here to there? What do you consider the most significant act of navigation?  

If given a little thought, the navigation of Christopher Columbus turns into an astonishing story. On August 3, 1492, Columbus left the Spanish town of Palos de la Frontera on his three ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Niña. Only 90 men made that first voyage; 40 on board the Santa Maria, 26 on the Pinta, and only 24 on the Niña. They were bound for their first stop on the voyage to the New World, the Canary Islands.

Of the men on board, Christopher Columbus was the “learned navigator.” He knew the world was round and maybe some of his crew did. For the most part, however, the crew did not believe the world was round and by the time they were at sea for five weeks without sight of land, there was talk of mutiny.

As the rumblings of insubordination gained momentum, at about 2:00 o’clock in the morning on October 12, 1492, a sailor aboard the Pinta, Rodrigo de Triana, sighted land. Later that day Columbus and his men set foot for the first time in the New World.

While Columbus’ voyage was a fascinating navigational achievement, think about this: the Polynesians canoed across thousands of miles of ocean to find and settle the Hawaiian Islands. This they did about 200 years after the death of Christ.

They accomplished trans-Pacific crossings without anything considered as modern navigational instruments. There were no sextants, no compasses – nothing. To determine angles, they used their hands, held perpendicular to the deck of the canoe at arm’s length, coupled with a song, passed down generations from one family navigator to another.

The voyage was a challenge, both physically and mentally for everyone, but in particular, for the navigators. They did their job not only without instruments, but also without charts. They were able to do this by memorizing the stars at night, the wind, the currents, and by using the sun during the day.

From these rudimentary basics, the Polynesians not only canoed to Hawaii from the Marquesas Islands, they returned and sailed again – across thousands of miles of open ocean. This was an incredible feat of navigation. However, was it the most incredible navigational problem ever accomplished?

Personally, I believe the most fantastic navigational miracle of all time was the return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. After their craft suffered crippling explosions and loss of their electrical system on their mission, which launched on April 11, 1970, there was a very high probability they were not going to make it back.


They lost critical mission equipment during the event, including the onboard computers required to “fly” the craft. Without the computers, the crew, consisting of James A. Lovell, John “Jack” Swigert, and Fred W. Haise, faced the challenge of “hand-flying” the vehicle back to earth.

The three of them, working as a team in concert with ground controllers at Houston, lined up the Apollo spacecraft with their naked eyes. They also calculated how much of a burn was required to put their craft on the proper angle, and then did it, completely by hand.

And they did most of their calculations using a slide rule.


©2010 J. Clark

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