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The (FIRST) White House Star Party October 12, 2009

Posted by ASTRO Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO) , 2comments

by Dara Norman

On Wednesday October 7, 2009, the White House hosted a star party. For those of you unfamiliar with star parties, these are nights when groups of astronomers (often, in fact usually, amateur) plan to take a bunch of telescopes out to a common location and just take a look at objects in the night sky. The White House star party was planned by NASA and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology. (see //www.whitehouse.gov/blog/White-House-to-Host-Star-Party/). My understanding was that the plan was to bring 150 DC local area middle school students, 20 telescopes, a couple portable planetariums and other astronomical activities together for a night of stargazing and learning. But really, when you throw in 4 or 5 astronauts, including the first woman, the first Black woman astronaut, a man who has walked on the moon and the new head of NASA, and the First Family, the evening is not just educational, it is thrilling for everyone involved!

Me at the White House's first star party.

Me at the White House's first star party.

About 3 weeks ago the head of National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s outreach and education group asked me if I might be interested in participating a White House Star Party IF it was to happen. I, of course, thought, what is he kidding? I would love to have the opportunity to visit the WH, last minute, whatever! Even with a small child at home, there was no way I’d be too busy to participate in this gig! When I got the word a week before the event and was told to keep it quiet until the official press release went out, I was fine with that. However, even our computer guy said to me in the hallway, “What are you grinning about?” Man… was I grinning that much, I couldn’t tell, but I wasn’t surprised.
On October 6th as I flew from Tucson to DC, I was more than a little worried that the weather was not going to cooperate for this event. I crossed most of the country from Arizona to Chicago to Washington, DC and the whole way the skies were socked in with clouds… high, thick clouds. Like with professional astronomical observing, I knew that this chance at a star party was a one shot deal! If it were cloudy the on-sky observing would be canceled! I went to bed thinking it was pretty touch and go and that maybe I wouldn’t end up observing at the WH after all.
Amazingly, I awoke to beautiful clear skies and a perfect clear day! After lunch I headed to the WH with my colleague from NOAO, Stephen Pompea. We were ushered to the South Lawn where we started setting up our telescopes. We were told that there was to be a “press event” at 4pm. But we didn’t really know what that meant. At 4 a few press came out onto the lawn following a few people in small packs. Who were these people? I had no idea.

Charlie Bolden, head of NASA, with middle school students as we wait for President Obama to speak.

Charlie Bolden, head of NASA, with middle school students as we wait for President Obama to speak.

As it turns out, Dr. Mae Jamison and Sally Ride were two of the people strolling across the lawn giving interviews. I was able to speak to both of them and give them copies of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy newsletter, Spectrum. The committee is one of the standing committees of the American Astronomical Society. Dr. Jamison in particular was very interested and exchanged cards and information about her own foundation to promote minority women in science and technology, particularly aero/astro fields.

After the dinner break, we returned to get the telescopes set up on our ‘assigned’ astronomical objects. For those in the know, this is not usually how star parties work. But the entire event lasted < 2 hours, so we were assigned either Jupiter or M13, a globular cluster, instead of having the chance to slew around to interesting sources with a few students.

Back at the telescope after dinner.

Back at the telescope after dinner.

The sun was setting as the students arrived. They walked around a bit but the schedule was such that they were not to begin the evening events until after President Obama gave his welcoming remarks. As that time drew near, the anticipation of the students grew. Each time the doors to the South Lawn opened, there was a burst of enthusiasm that then faded to disappointed sighs each time it was not the President… despite the fact that at one point it was a group of astronauts crossing the stage!
When Obama finally arrived he was greeted with cheers and frantic waves from the crowd of kids at the front of the audience. At the end of the speech, there was a telescope set up for the President and First Lady to have a look at an “interesting object”. The chosen source was a double, double star system about 150 light years away. Again for those in the know, you might ask, “Why pick a faint system of 4 stars when brighter ‘Gee whiz!’ sources were clearly up in the sky?” Yes, I agree, it seems painfully clear from the President’s and Mrs. Obama’s reactions that they were unable to see anthing in that eyepiece and no wonder with the bright lights around and the faintness of the source. My guess is that the source was chosen for the angle of the telescope. Given the trees and the building in the background, the only place to point the telescope was either to the south, down the lawn, or straight up! There wouldn’t be much of a photo-op with the President looking from behind the telescope out into the crowd, so find something, anything, that would be at about zenith at 8:10pm.

The First Lady looks for the double, double star.

The First Lady looks for the double, double star.

After the ill-fated presidential observing, I returned to my telescope to show the kids Jupiter. I found that it was not hard to get kids excited about looking through a telescope that is on the White House South Lawn. The kids were great even those who had seen Jupiter several times before. Most of the kids are from a large metropolitan area (DC, Maryland, Virginia) and many didn’t realize that you could see Jupiter without the telescope! “Is that Jupiter there?” they said pointing was a common remark.
As the middle schoolers cycled through the activities, I occasionally found myself without an audience. During one such time, I suddenly saw a mass of people moving in the darkness. They were walking toward me, but not to me or my telescope. I heard some whispers of, “Here comes the President.” At that moment I was divinely inspired to shout out, “Jupiter over here!” and the mass altered its angle and headed my way. The President reached me first saying, “So what do we have here?” as he bent low to see into the eyepiece. “It’s Jupiter,” I said, “You should sit down to view, I have it aligned that way.” Obama sat down. I was only vaguely aware of anyone but the First Family and a few guys with video cameras. I started my shpiel, “You should see a disk and…” “What are the dots lined up there?” the President interrupted. “Yes, those are the 4 Galilean moons…” I continued with naming the moons, explaining their orbits, pointing out the stripes of clouds across the planet’s face and describing the distance in the time it takes the light to travel. “That means the light left 30 minutes ago,” said the President. “Indeed, that’s right!” I encouraged. Sasha got the next turn to look. “Now come over here and don’t touch it!” her dad lightly scolded, seemingly with experience as his guide. I commented to the President that I was from the South Side of Chicago, Kenwood. “We know Kenwood,” he said looking toward Michelle, “We live over by the synagogue there.”
As Michelle sat down, a cloud had rolled in. She was able to see the disk, but not the moons very clearly. As they started to leave, they both shook my hand, “Nice to meet you,” Ms. Obama, who had been very quiet, said. And then they were off.

Chatting with the President while Sasha looks at Jupiter.   Not the best picture with the President, but it is all I got!

Chatting with the President while Sasha looks at Jupiter. Not the best picture with the President, but it is all I got!

Later on that night a boy came wandering toward my telescope. “You want to see Jupiter?” I asked him. “Sure.” He said and politely sat down. This time I was able to complete my shpiel. “Do you see…,” I continued. He politely answered yes to every question but clearly was not very engaged. Since Jupiter was one of maybe 3 targetted sources on display, I suspected he had had his fill, so I didn’t take it as a sign of disinterest. “Where you from?” I said, since he was making no effort to leave. “Silverspring, MD, “ he said pacing around looking at the ground. Then he turned to look back to the White House and said, “How COOL is this that we get to be at the White House!!” “WAY COOL!!” I answered.