Planetarium program shows how stars led the way for Lewis and C

January 08, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Eileen Starr equates the Lewis and Clark expedition with astronauts going to Mars.

There were no maps, no charts, no GPS - Global Positioning System - when Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their band of explorers set out 200 years ago to trek across North America to the Pacific Ocean.

Starr, professor emeritus of science at Valley City State University in Valley City, N.D., wondered how they knew were they were going. She researched the journey. She read Lewis and Clark's journals. She traveled their route, taking photographs along the way. It wasn't easy to take pictures without evidence of 20th-century civilization, she says.

Starr created "Navigating with Lewis and Clark," the program that will be shown at Washington County Public Schools' William M. Brish Planetarium on Tuesday evenings from Jan. 13 through Feb. 24. The program includes some of those photos.


A handful of stars were used to navigate, Starr says. Lewis used the astronomical method of navigation; Clark used "dead reckoning," which involved knowing where they were and using a compass to know the direction they were heading, she adds.

They had navigational instruments of the times - almanacs, compass, sextant, theodolite, says National Park Service historian and curator Bill Brown. Because of existing sea charts, they had a vague idea of how long it would take to get to the coast.

But he adds, "They didn't have a clue about the Rocky Mountains."

Brown worked on the "Corps of Discovery II," a joint project of federal and state agencies, private and nonprofit organizations and American Indian tribes. The exhibit, which debuted at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home, a year ago, will visit communities in the 19 states traveled by the historic expedition. Brown calls the journey absolutely remarkable.

Rod Martin, Brish planetarium resource teacher, would agree and chose to present the program to the public in honor of the expedition's bicentennial.

"Latitude's easy," he says. The height of the sun above the horizon will give you latitude, Starr agrees.

Longitude, because it involves calculations of time, is a little trickier. The explorers had a chronometer - the time telling device used by sailors, but Martin says chronometers didn't travel well.

The chronometer had to be wound every day at noon, Starr says. There were occasions on which they didn't wind it: once during "an altercation" with the Sioux, another during a blizzard, she adds.

Prior to the journey, the United States went no further west than the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, says David Fox, park ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The world is different 200 years later. The difference in the maps available before the journey and those made by the expedition could be compared to the difference in maps made by elementary school students and college graduates, Brown says.

The Lewis and Clark expedition, a journey of more than two years and 7,500 miles, was probably one of the very first scientific expeditions, Brown says.

The explorers documented the continent's plant and animal life and its terrain. Brown is convinced that Lewis' six months of study prior to the journey made "the difference for these guys." Jefferson had sent Lewis to Philadelphia for a "crash course" in medicine, zoology, botany, mapmaking and learning how to work navigational instruments.

Brown also points out that the Corps of Discovery was not a ragtag bunch of frontiersmen. It was a "fully uniformed, very trained scientific expedition."

Nevertheless, he calls the journey and its achievements "amazing."

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