Lost in Space and Other Tales of Exploration and Navigation

A new exhibit at the Air and Space Museum reveals how we use time and space to get around every day, from maritime exploration to Google maps

With each new frontier of exploration and travel came new challenges.
With each new frontier of exploration and travel came new challenges. Air and Space Museum

The first several Soviet and American spacecrafts sent to the moon missed it completely, crashed on the moon or were lost in space, according to a new exhibition at the Air and Space Museum. Navigation is a tricky business and has long been so, even before we ever set our sights on the moon. But the steady march of technological advances and a spirit of exploration have helped guide us into new realms. And today, any one with GPS can be a navigator.

From the sea and sky to outer space and back, the history of how we get where we’re going is on view at the National Air and Space Museum’s new exhibit “Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There,” co-sponsored by both Air and Space and the National Museum of American History.

Historian Carlene Stephens, who studies the history of time and is one of four Smithsonian curators who worked on the show, says: “If you want to know where you are, if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock and that’s been true since the 18th century.”

In pursuit of a sea clock
In pursuit of a sea clock, Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch mathematician, changed timekeeping forever when he patented the first working pendulum clock in 1656 and later devised a watch regulator called a balance spring. He worked with several Dutch clockmakers,including Johannes van Ceulen, who made this table clock around 1680, one of the earliest clocks with a pendulum. Air and Space Museum
The sextant
The sextant, invented in the 18th century by British mathematical instrument makers, became the most essential instrument for celestial navigation. Jesse Ramsden, who made this sextant, also devised a machine to divide the scale on the sextant very precisely. Air and Space Museum

That interplay of time and space is at the heart of the exhibit—from sea to satellites. As technology allows for greater accuracy, so too does it ease navigation for the average user, so that by World War II, navigators could be trained in a matter of hours or days.

What began as “dead reckoning,” or positioning oneself using time, speed and direction, has transformed into an ever-more accurate process with atomic clocks capable of keeping time within three-billionths of a second. Where it once took roughly 14 minutes to calculate one’s position at sea, it now takes fractions of a second. And though it still takes 14 minutes to communicate via satellite with instruments on Mars, like Curiosity, curator Paul Ceruzzi says, we were still able to complete the landing with calculations made from earth.

“That gives you a sense of how good we’re getting at these things,” says Ceruzzi.

The exhibit tells the story with an array of elegantly crafted and historical instruments, including models of clocks designed by Galileo, Charles Lindbergh’s sextant used to learn celestial navigation, artifacts from the Wilkes Expedition and Stanley, the most famous early robotic vehicle that can navigate itself. It as much a testament to the distances we’ve traversed as it is to the capacity of human intellect that first dreamed it was all possible.

While this instrument does not look like a traditional sextant
While this instrument does not look like a traditional sextant, the basic procedure is descended from centuries-old methods used by navigators at sea and in the air. This instrument was used by Apollo astronauts to first locate a single star with a telescope and then take a fix using a sextant. Air and Space Museum
Developed by the Stanford Racing Team
Developed by the Stanford Racing Team, Stanley is a 2005 Volkswagen Touareg modified to navigate without remote control and without a human driver in the seat and successfully completed the Grand Challenge, a robot race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), by navigating 212 kilometers (132 miles) across desert terrain. Air and Space Museum

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