When it comes to navigating by the stars, Wichita sextant maker shines (+video)

Kansas is to the ocean as celestial navigation is to the 21st century – seemingly unrelated to one another. But all those things might come together because of a Wichita company.

The U.S. Navy recently decided to revive its training on how to navigate ships using the stars. And the lead importer of tools used for star navigation lives and works in Wichita.

The Navy is reviving celestial training as a precaution against GPS cyberhackers and to improve self-reliance among Navy members.

The art of navigating by the stars might seem like an antique niche hobby today, but a College Hill resident dominates the market for celestial navigation and sells his products in 30 countries outside the U.S., including Syria, albeit through a third party.

“If they want a low-cost sextant, which everyone does, we’re the only importers of that,” said Ken Gebhart, owner of the Wichita-based Celestaire, which sells products needed to navigate using the stars. “You can’t get it anywhere else.”

Gebhart, a 79-year-old Louisville, Ky., native, moved to Wichita in 1965. He started Celestaire in 1972 from the basement of his home in College Hill, where he still lives today.

The main tool used in celestial navigation is a sextant. A sextant is a double-mirrored instrument that measures the distance between the horizon and an object in the sky: the sun, stars, moon or a planet.

To navigate the ocean, a person plots sextant measurements on charts and tables and uses a nautical almanac to apply the data.

Celestaire owns the copyright to one of the tables used during navigation and is one of the few companies that makes the navigation charts and almanacs.

History in the Navy

The Navy’s celestial training fell by the wayside because of GPS reliance.

The Naval Academy used to teach celestial navigation to all crew members who sailed but then cut back on some of the training in 2006. All of the Navy members designated as navigators and assistant navigators still received training as a backup tool, but the rest of the crew members didn’t receive the training as part of their coursework.

Michael White, rear admiral for the Naval Education and Training Command, said the Navy reinstated some of its celestial training at three Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps this month.

White said the training would extend to more crew members by fall 2016.

“This would allow a ship with any casualty to be able to continue to navigate,” he said. “It’s just one of those important skills that you hopefully wouldn’t have to use but you would want to be resonant in your crew.”

Although important, White said, he thinks the reason behind the Navy’s decision to roll back some of the program in 2006 was the competition for training priorities with limited time and resources.

As technology advanced, he said, star navigation likely struggled to hold importance.

“Over time, re-evaluations are always done, and this was brought back in as an important one,” he said.

White said the training would likely include simulation technology for Navy members to practice navigation virtually.

White said he knows the basics of celestial navigation, and it’s not easy.

“It’s pretty difficult,” he said. “It just is a very detailed process, because you have to use your sight tables and almanacs and put it all together, but people tend to enjoy it.”

He said the Navy would probably buy more sextants, charts and tables in the next one or two years. But he said the Navy had not yet talked about the purchase.

“Our Navy ships that operate very independently at sea – you need to be prepared for any contingency,” he said.

Gebhart’s path

Gebhart, the owner of Celestaire, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, where he said he studied with Sen. John McCain, who graduated that same year.

Gebhart said he was glad to see celestial navigation added back to the Naval Academy curriculum but that he wished it hadn’t been downsized in the first place.

“A physician has to know how the ancient Greeks did medicine, and Naval officers certainly should know how to do this as a professional knowledge,” he said.

He said he moved to Wichita for a pilot position at Boeing in 1965 but eventually became nostalgic for celestial navigation, which pushed him to start Celestaire.

He found out about a Chinese factory with high-quality marine sextants made at low cost, so Gebhart said he flew to China to pitch a partnership deal. The factory agreed to the proposition and finalized the deal through the Chinese government in order to make the deal with Gebhart’s Western company.

When Gebhart talked about the start of Celestaire, he began to choke up.

“I had just signed an agreement with the government of one-third of the population of the Earth from the basement of my home in College Hill,” he said.

The Chinese factory still manufacturers the sextants and sends them to Wichita for inspection.

“We’ve even sold the sextant, which is made in China, to a ship channeler in China,” he said. “We shipped it back to China.”

Gebhart said Celestaire makes the most sextants, almanacs, sight reduction tables and plotting charts used today. Because the company sells the most, he said, it offers the lowest prices.

Celestaire’s sextants range from $659 to $1,984. But Gebhart said the price range doesn’t make a difference in utility, just glitz.

He said he now works just two or three hours each afternoon at his office near Kellogg and Oliver and that his daughter-in-law works half-days and a grandson works evenings and weekends. So in all, he said, the business is run by about one full-time equivalent.

A Celestaire sextant appeared in the 2013 film “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford as a man lost at sea. The producer even purchased a Celestaire sextant for himself. The movie’s sextant caught the attention of the Associated Press as a gift idea for the top 1 percent who have everything.

Genhart said he now sells about 500 sextants a year. He said some sales decreased with the advent of eBay, which allows people to more easily sell used sextants.

Gebhart said many of his sales go through a third-party buyer, especially outside the U.S. Because of that, he said, he doesn’t always know the final destination of the sextants he sells. But he said he knows of five militaries that use his sextants through direct or indirect sales: the U.S., Israel, Chile, Ecuador and Malaysia.

Reach Gabriella Dunn at 316-268-6400 or gdunn@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @gabriella_dunn.