On the South Lawn, A White House 'Star Party'
Updated 9:40 p.m.
By Joel Achenbach
President Obama, having spent much of the day pondering Afghanistan, spent a few seconds Wednesday night looking through a telescope at a double-star system roughly one quadrillion miles away.
The South Lawn of the White House was littered with some 20 telescopes and what might be called portable planetariums -- inflated tents with images of the universe projected on the ceiling. This was the Obama "star party," a night for astronomy with 150 Washington-area students.
It was 400 years ago, the president told the students, that Galileo built his first telescope and began probing the universe.
"Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky. Now it's your turn," Obama said. "Don't let anyone tell ya that there isn't more to discover."
Also on hand: two 15-year-old amateur astronomers, who discovered, respectively, a new supernova and a rare type of ultra-dense star known as a pulsar. Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. Former astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, and current astronaut John Grunsfeld, the Hubble telescope repairman. The night was blessed by clear skies, though the light pollution of the city ensured that the South Lawn would not have the same kind of "seeing" as a remote mountaintop.
Among those providing the instruments was Doug Hudgins, a NASA planetary scientist who built a homemade telescope (a Dobsonian reflector with a 24-inch mirror, for those who keep track of such things). It's an impressive contraption, a bit larger than your average battlefield cannon. He usually keeps it in his garage, dismantled, but Wednesday it sat on the White House grounds.
"The Wild Duck Cluster is up," Hudgins said as reporters toured the telescopes in the afternoon. "It's an open cluster of stars in the Milky Way in the constellation of Scutum, I believe. It's beautiful."
At that moment, with the sun still out, he had his telescope aimed at an American flag atop a building a couple of blocks away. Through the eyepiece, the flag's stars loomed so large you could almost see the sunspots.
The event was dreamed up as an effort to promote science literacy. Museums and planetariums across the country were scheduled to take part remotely.
"Middle school is right when we start to lose kids in science and technology," said Ride, the first American woman in space. This program, she said, was designed to "remind them that science is really cool."
Jemison said that when she was growing up, she assumed she'd be working in space by this point -- and not just in low Earth orbit. "I always assumed that I'd be working on Mars or the moons of Jupiter," she said.
he star-gazing came amid tremendous uncertainty and anxiety in the American space program. NASA's strategy of human space exploration is now very much up in the air. Later this month, a review panel appointed by the White House and led by retired aerospace executive Norm Augustine will deliver a detailed report on the options for human space flight.
The gist of the Augustine committee's executive summary, released last month, is that there's not nearly enough money in present and future budgets to carry out a robust exploration program that would include a return of astronauts anytime in the near future. NASA had set 2020 as a target date for astronauts returning to the moon, but the panel dismissed that as implausible and suggested that it would take an additional $3 billion a year to carry out the mission as originally envisioned by the space agency.
On Friday morning, NASA will crash a spacecraft and a rocket booster into a shadowy crater at the moon's south pole in an attempt to see if frozen water lurks there beneath the lunar surface. Such water would be highly useful to a lunar base should astronauts return to the moon. But it's not clear if the moon is still a destination for NASA in the near term, and the president's science adviser, John Holdren, did not clear up the issue as he toured the telescopes on the South Lawn.
Asked by a reporter what he would say if a middle school student asked him if America is returning to the moon, Holdren said simply, "We will certainly go back to the moon at some point."
And would the administration be willing to put another $3 billion into human exploration?
"We'll be looking at that," he said.
Posted at 9:40 PM ET on Oct 7, 2009
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