The Trail: A Daily Diary of Campaign 2008


Washington Life

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.

NASA personnel set-up models representing the solar system and other astronomy equipment on the South Lawn of the White House in preparation for an event with President Barack Obama and the first lady. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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  | Category:  Washington Life
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

"Bless that which you want, anything you negate you will never have" quote by T.Harv Eker. To all haters, something to ponder if you can wrap your mind around it.

Posted by: geriepinkard | October 8, 2009 11:18 PM

For years I've been looking for a picture of a US President looking through a telescope. You can readily find such a photo of a Pope, or of Hitler, or of some other other country's leaders, but not the US President. And the Vice-President's residence is at the US Naval Observatory.

Hopefully, when our US President finally got around to looking up, he noticed how much the sky was besmirched by light pollution. At risk from light pollution are motorist safety, personal security, energy, money, the entire nocturnal kingdom, human health, and quality of life.

As we spend billions of stimulus dollars on roadway projects and other construction, we should mandate that the outdoor lights are fully shielded--not just efficient. Otherwise, we'll just end up with more efficient sources of even worse sky glow, light trespass, and glare.

Earlier this year over 3,400 kids in our community went out and looked up to quantify local sky glow ( Their findings: our sky is about nine (9) times brighter than a natural sky. At this rate, soon no one--US President or otherwise--will be photographed looking through a telescope, for there will be no celestial wonders visible against the garish hue.

Posted by: nightwise | October 8, 2009 1:20 PM

I am more proud than ever of our president!

Posted by: ennepe68 | October 8, 2009 1:12 PM

Just when you start thinking that some Republican Obama hater is going to say something stupid, one of them pops up and does it. They are like mushrooms in a manure pile. Opps, I used thinking and Republican Obama hater in the same sentence; my bad.

Posted by: hercster44 | October 8, 2009 11:37 AM

Students from Howard University Middle School of Math and Science were there and were richly blessed. What a wonderful experience to be a kid growing up in D.C. and to know that this is your White House and the people in it care about you, and that math and science aren't just for nerds or rich kids. It's so good to see intellectual curiosity encouraged from our nation's leader - for a change.

Posted by: DCcomm | October 8, 2009 10:31 AM


Posted by: 123cartoon | October 8, 2009 9:39 AM

tjhall1 wrote: You can bet these kids are NOT the usual fatherless welfare thugs from DC. Did they bus the white students in from private schools or Virginia?
I wondered if someone would post something dismally stupid and racist. You, sir, did not disappoint.

Posted by: lewfournier1 | October 8, 2009 9:39 AM

I am not a big fan of the Obama White House, but this is an important event. The US is slipping fast against other countries when it comes to science and math comprehension among our children. I hope this is just the beginning for the President to be openly active with encouraging our kids not only to learn, but that it is cool to be well educated. Great job Mr. President!

Posted by: CTL123 | October 8, 2009 9:10 AM

He did what???!! Star gazing???!!! On our tax dollars!! AAAAAH!!! This is his attempt to socialize outer space! Commie! Nazi!! The nerve of him! He's probably sending coded messages to aliens to infiltrate my brain! I'm so mad, I accidently crushed my tinfoil hat!

Posted by: obx2004 | October 8, 2009 8:33 AM


Posted by: scrivener50 | October 8, 2009 8:11 AM

Where are photos of the fatherless welfare DC thug children looking at the stars? Oh, that's right. They're mugging and killing now.

Posted by: tjhall1 | October 8, 2009 7:56 AM

You can bet these kids are NOT the usual fatherless welfare thugs from DC. Did they bus the white students in from private schools or Virginia?

Posted by: tjhall1 | October 8, 2009 7:44 AM

Oh my gosh, I can hear it already. The right wing lunatics will be out in force. There Obama goes again trying to brain wash our kids, or how about," doesn't he have more important things to do besides inspire our children to reach for the stars?" or "he's such a narcissist, trying to get attention again".
Well, as far as I'm concerned, President Obama is an exemplary role model for our children. It's refreshing to have someone in the WH who clearly values intellect and education. Obama had to pull himself up by the bootstraps, and he has young children of his own, so understands the importance of inspiring our kids to do well in school.

Posted by: ggwalt | October 8, 2009 6:54 AM

I was a "high school dropout", however in the past year my signature rode a poster up on the shuttle. The worst thing any parent or young person can do is write themselves off, or let other people do it to them.

There's probably plenty of kids out there who're facing all sorts of problems and parents doing the same thing, and telling themselves bad things about a future not yet made. Or that these kinds of things are for other people, there's no human end of stories of the glass half empty.

One of the greatest freedoms in America is the freedom to learn, coupled with the freedom to then act. That's where opportunity intersects.

"Not getting into the right school" dooms no one, but not getting an education will doom anyone to less than what they want. In any case, not giving up is a huge key to success.

Posted by: timscanlon | October 8, 2009 6:06 AM

How very fortunate we are to have an intelligent and cogent Executive Leader. Undoubtedly the cristo-facists will find away to take this important experience for the children of this nation = out of orbit.
We need many more events like this on my White House lawn.

Posted by: Darwin26 | October 8, 2009 3:51 AM

What a wonderful experience to have and to share with these children.
They will probably remember this event during the rest of their lives, and it will be fodder for passing on the story of their adventure to their own children and how special this experience was.
And the opportunity to meet the celebrities of work in space is a wonderful thing to provide for the children.
What amazes me about the Obamas is the innovation of the projects they create for children's participation.
The garden.
The star party.
The Obamas are natural-born teachers.
They are amazing.
We are fortunate as a nation to have such a young, vibrant family in the White House.
I hope many communities take a clue from what they have done here to develop local "star parties" for many more children to enjoy.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | October 8, 2009 3:44 AM

"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"------Get used to the one quadrillion #, cause that's probably where our national debt will be, once Obama and the Dems are done with their big spending ways.Oh that's right,we can just print more money.Now I feel better.

Posted by: votingrevolution | October 8, 2009 3:08 AM

Frankly, it's a whole lot better than anything that last butthead occupant of the White House ever did.

Posted by: jato11 | October 8, 2009 2:44 AM

Someone's been watching a few too many cheesy sci-fi horror movies.

Oh well, I guess the president COULD be doing better things with his time when there's so much to deal with, like clearing brush on his Texas ranch...

Posted by: treetopflyer | October 8, 2009 2:19 AM

You gotta be kidding me.
The photo looks like the guy about to get bug zapped in a roadrunner comic strip by the ACME project.

Posted by: dottydo | October 7, 2009 11:18 PM right wingers never give it a rest, do you?

Unremitting, relentless, meaningless rage and hatred. At kids, science, subject is too innovent to be left alone.

No wonder your kind has lost its credibiliity.

Posted by: Attucks | October 8, 2009 1:31 AM

He's looking in the wrong direction.

Posted by: jato11 | October 8, 2009 1:03 AM

We have such a great President. President Obama is real. He get's it. He knows our children must want to learn because they want to learn. All these bitter old folks who are so concerned about themselves and protecting what golden memories America had, need to take a step back, and let our President inspire our children to want to learn. Go to China, see how advanced there children are. See how they want to learn. We need to embrace our children. We had our day in the sun, now it's time as the late Ten Kennedy said, "to pass the torch on to the next generation." And we have a great President who is part of that torch.

Posted by: kubrickstan | October 8, 2009 12:14 AM

This is inspiring and wonderful. But as a practical matter, I am so glad they happened to get a clear night for it! It's impossible to schedule for good seeing more than a day or two ahead of time, and the previous night would have been a total loss, completely overcast. I'm glad things worked out for the all those middle school kids.

Or, since it mentions they were all from local schools, maybe there was a back-up plan to reschedule if the night was overcast.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | October 7, 2009 11:58 PM

This is none of the nasty things people would like to attribute to it.

This is science people who care about what they're doing, people who do VERY cool things, trying to get the word out to both kids and adults that there's opportunity there for them too.

Yes, the White House is a good venue for doing this, and it does help that the President has young children. However, that's where there's an overlap of mutual interests, not any weirdo agenda.

The things they're saying are true, and it's worth it to everyone in the US science community to try to get people interested in being a part of what they're doing. There is serious opportunity for kids who chose that sort of path in the future.

This is not a partisan issue, it's an issue that's of shared interest to all citizens. Sure, if you're angry at the world this may not seem like a whole lot of good to you, but stay stuck in that place and you miss out on something else too.

This is an area of common ground, and common interest to both the country as an entity, and the citizenry as individuals. I'd encourage people to consider it more in terms of 'hey this might be good for that kid *I* know', rather than `oh here's just another worthless activity ___insert__condemnation__here___ ...'

Seeing conditions for astronomy are not wonderful in downtown DC. Drive a little north of the city, south, or out west towards the mountains, and it gets much better though.

All the sciences really need, and want, participation from people who're willing to contribute to the effort. You don't have to be some sort of mega-genius to do it either, which when you're not that person can seem pretty daunting. These fields are open enough though that what it takes is having that as a goal and pursuing it more than any great gift. Having the most perfect grades, the best SAT scores, going to whatever `right' school, playing with whatever `right' people, all that BS that parents worry themselves, and their children about is more self fulfilling hogwash than useful to actually meeting the goal of being in that sort of profession. Having that as a goal, and doing some of the basic groundwork well in learning how to learn about unknown facts matters more. There is a core set of useful skills, and some framework people need to learn, but it is not out of reach of people who consider themselves to be 'average' or 'normal' either.

Posted by: timscanlon | October 7, 2009 11:49 PM

Excellent idea PResident Obama. Anything to encourage education and curiosity is a good thing. Many naysayers will trow stones in this thread but we know they are not academic types so they don't know better. This is a cool event; nobody with a brain should have a problem with it. This is one of many, many occasions where the doors of the White House are open for special "theme" events. This President's penchant for providing intellectually stimulating and artistic events TO ALL is beyond that of any American president. Thanks President Obama. Thanks for restoring dignity, respect and compassion to the White House!

Posted by: bcs2k | October 7, 2009 11:28 PM

You gotta be kidding me.
The photo looks like the guy about to get bug zapped in a roadrunner comic strip by the ACME project.

Posted by: dottydo | October 7, 2009 11:18 PM

If any of you have ever looked up into the sky and wondered...wondered about "what is up there" wondered about the meaning of the beauty of it all, wondered about your personal meaning in the grand scheme of life and the universe, well, you are the people who could totally appreciate what the President has done for all those children who know themselves to be significant, important, and wonder-struck by the beauty of the Universe that Homo Sapiens have been able to far. Thank you Mr. President for reminding me of all those summer hours, laying on a beach, looking up at the sky and knowing the mystery that surrounds us at every second of every minute of every hour.

Posted by: cms1 | October 7, 2009 10:50 PM

It's just one more ruse to make Obama the center of the universe... at least that is how the rabid right media will portray it.

Posted by: AverageJane | October 7, 2009 10:48 PM

Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Obama for generously opening up the White House for area students, first with the garden and now with this project. I think the young people of this country deserve to know that their President and First Lady care very much about education, and you're doing a fine job setting a good example for them to follow. I don't care what party you're from: learning is a very, very good thing.

Posted by: dcn8v | October 7, 2009 10:29 PM

More of Obama corrupting our children with partisan ideology.

I wouldn't be surprised if this is political stunt looking to either

a) bait conservative commentators into looking foolish again.

b) expose them as ridiculous hypocrites for not condemning Obama on this one.

It's a win-win.

Posted by: parkerdn2000 | October 7, 2009 10:14 PM

Brighthouse cable in tampa florida is systematically interrupting service during the Keith Olberman broadcast. This is the fifth time in 2 weeks. Maybe they have something against MSNBC.

Posted by: seemstome | October 7, 2009 9:15 PM


And just WHY are we bombing the Moon on Friday? To measure ice crystals for water?...

...or is this a "directed energy" weapons test in disguise -- weaponization of space, in violation of international treaties?

Will our Moon have "rings" from the whispy clouds of moondust and debris? Is the light of the silvery Moon about to go dim?

Or can we now feel safe and secure, knowing that the arms race has reached into outer space?

Discuss, children.

OR (if link is corrupted / disabled):

Posted by: scrivener50 | October 7, 2009 7:53 PM

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