Way back in February, plans were afoot to have President Obama and his family host a star party at the White House as part of the International Year of Astronomy. Eight months later, it's going to happen. On October 7th some very carefully chosen amateur astronomers will be giving the Obamas and 150 children a tour of the heavens from the White House South Lawn.
A press advisory, issued yesterday, notes that on Wednesday evening "the President and First Lady will host an event at the White House for middle-school students to highlight the President's commitment to science, engineering and math education as the foundation of this nation's global technological and economic leadership and to express his support for astronomy in particular — for its capacity to promote a greater awareness of our place in the universe, expand human knowledge, and inspire the next generation by showing them the beauty and mysteries of the night sky."
This stellar event is the brainchild of Audrey Fischer, a Chicago-area amateur who imagined uniting children around the world with one big stargaze. Early this year, her head full of stars after a visit to Mauna Kea, she fired off an email to the White House to pitch the idea. "Every astronomer, teacher, and child I talked with [is] so enthusiastic," she wrote. "They are just holding their breath for your response."
You can imagine how many entreating emails West Wing staffers must slog through each day, but something about this one clicked. Desiree Rodgers, the White House's social secretary (in charge of events like the annual Easter-egg roll) called Fischer for more details. Hundreds of supportive messages poured in from around the country, and a volley of phone and email exchanges between Fischer and various Administration officials followed. The idea had gotten traction.
Fischer's original hope was to hold the star-studded star party in early April, to coincide with the IYA's "100 Hours of Astronomy." But the months dragged on with no confirmation. Was the early momentum waning?
In July, I heard presidential science advisor John Holdren, who heads the Office of Science and Technology Policy, tell a gathering of space enthusiasts that President Obama was committed to jump-starting innovation in science and technology and that engaging young people was key to this plan. I sidled up to Holdren afterward and broached the star-party idea. He was aware of it, thought it was a great idea, and felt sure it would happen.
IYA organizers had suggested a couple of celestially favorable dates, September 26th and October 23rd (the latter to coincide with the IYA's "Galilean Nights"). Ultimately the White House and OSTP picked October 7th — not optimum for a kid-friendly star party because there'll be no evening Moon. Jupiter will be up (a plus) and there's a whopper of an Iridium flare (magnitude -8) that night. But little else in the night sky will be obvious from our nation's light-drenched capitol.
The irony in all this is that the White House handed off the event's coordination to NASA Headquarters, leaving the IYA team completely in the dark, so to speak. And get this: Audrey Fischer didn't receive an invitation to attend!
Nonetheless, it should be a wonderful event. I hope President Obama uses it not only to fire up the next generation of amateur and professional astronomers, but also to raise awareness about light pollution and the energy waste it represents.
So how can you join in the festivities, albeit vicariously? Details are still sketchy, but apparently President Obama will kick-off the event at about 8 p.m. Eastern time with a brief address that will be streamed live by the White House and by NASA TV. Plans include viewing through more than 20 telescopes; presentations in portable planetariums; and various hands-on activities. (If it's cloudy, there'll likely be a secondary site to host the event indoors, perhaps the U.S. Naval Observatory.)
Meanwhile, IYA organizers are scrambling to organize local star parties nationwide at the same time, and to get some linkage to upcoming events like the "Galilean Nights" and the "Great World Wide Star Count".
No matter what the outcome, it's impressive that President Obama is showing this much interest in science generally and astronomy in particular. Another president, Thomas Jefferson, was well known for his scientific curiosity, and a brass telescope is prominently displayed at Monticello, his Virginia home.
I wonder how many other presidents have done some stargazing. Can any of you help me compile a list?