A White House Star Party?

Picture this: It's Saturday, April 4th, and all around the world astronomers are celebrating "100 Hours of Astronomy," a key component of the International Year of Astronomy. Evening twilight is descending on Washington, D.C., and on a grassy expanse somewhere in the U.S. Capitol, First Lady Michelle Obama is helping her daughters, Malia and Sasha, zero in on a fat, gibbous Moon using a telescope once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

White House
There's plenty of room out in front to set up a few telescopes.
Dennis di Cicco
If Audrey Fischer has her way, this Kodak Moment could really happen in a month's time. A Chicago-area amateur with passion and panache, Fischer has been speed-dialing her way through the federal phone book trying to drum up support for a star party at the White House.

She has a couple of things going for her. First, it is, after all, the International Year of Astronomy — there'll be no better opportunity any time soon. And Desiree Rodgers, the White House social secretary (in charge of events like the annual Easter Egg Roll), has stated that she's looking for fresh ideas to invite the public to the White House.

On the other hand, the White House doesn't exactly have an empty dance card for the coming months. Besides, both the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum and the U.S. Naval Observatory are already planning IYA events for April 4th. According to USNO spokesperson Geoff Chester, it's not inconceivable that the Obamas might stop by for a quick peek at Saturn or the Orion Nebula. After all, the official residence of the U.S. vice president is on the observatory's grounds.

But Fischer is still hoping for the undeniable symbolism that having an event at the White House itself would offer. (Trust me, the emails are flying among IYA and Washington officials right now.)

So what do you think? A good idea, a great idea, or pie in the sky?

41 thoughts on “A White House Star Party?

  1. Carl Rollberg62@yahoo.com

    Having lived in Hyde Park, Kenwood and Englewood I would love to be part of that party. It is a great idea. Even if I can’t be there, it would be a huge event. It won’t happen without an effort, so please go for it. What a great idea!

  2. Susan Button

    This is a fantastic idea to promote IYA 2009 and show support for Astronomy and science in general. The President and his family as role models, showing their interest in science, would make a BIG statement! Just what we want in our country’s First Family.
    Susan Button, Past President of the International Planetarium Society (www.ips-planetarium.org)

  3. Bob Eramia

    Great idea! I would hope that the Obama’s will get a view of Saturn with a high quality modern telescope, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s. I wasn’t much older than the Obama girls when I first viewed Saturn through a telescope about 50 years ago. I never forget that view.

  4. Paul Williams

    Politicization of science is never a good idea. Look at the “Man Made Global Warming” hype.

    The country is so evenly split over the Obama election that it will further polarize the country. And those that adore him, still will.

  5. Gary Purinton

    The idea of the first family out on their lawn looking at the sky and pearing through a telescope is wonderful. However, knowing the skies in D.C., there is a good chance that the sky will be cloudy at that time of the year, and I’m not sure how nice the Orion Nebula would look from the light polluted skies of D.C. if it was visible at all. Would they be turning off all the lights illuminating the White House? However, the Vice President’s yard would have some advantages. First, it would be easier to control the media access, and prevent photos of the disappointed looks of the participants from appearing in the next day’s newspaper if the skies were cloudy. Second, the light pollution is slightly better contained there. Third, they could use the 26″ refractor at the U.S. Naval Observatory, and have a really amazing viewing experience. Even if the sky was cloudy, they’d be impressed by the equipment and facilities.

  6. Cheryl

    How much is this going to cost the taxpayers???

    As we’ve learned in recent days, the White House is eager to spend our money…and I just learned today that as a business owner the government is telling me I must pick up an even larger portion of the “stimulus package” than the tax hike I’m already getting hit with. Though it would be really cool to heighten awareness of astronomy and science in general, let the Obama’s go to the Smithsonian or the Naval Observatory. I just can’t afford any more special projects.

  7. jeff

    Much as I can not stand the administration’s fiscal policies, I can’t help but think the possibility of bringing newbies into the hobby or heighten awareness of Astronomy and light pollution more than makes up for my personal distaste for the man’s (or woman’s) fiscal policies. Science and in particular Astronomy, ought transcend that stuff. And after the last administration, almost ANY science at the White house be welcome indeed!!!

  8. Elizabeth

    I think that the basic idea/intent is very admirable.

    However, planning for a truly good event should have started some time ago and should not be hodgepodged together at the last minute. I think a really nice star party could be put together without it costing the taxpayer anything, but it would rely on lots of volunteers.

    Has anyone talked to any of the other organizations (astronomy clubs/ planetariums, observatories) in the DC metro area to coordinate efforts? After all, you are planning a event in their region. I’m sure the clubs/museums in Chicago or Sky&Tel in Boston would not be thrilled if DC amateurs started organizing events in their region without consulting/inviting/including them in the planning…

    A very successful proposal would have a clearly though out plan/agenda, would have coordinated/gotten the support of many of the local institutions, would have done the necessary/preliminary research of what is visible/observable on the proposed nights (one email mentioned connecting to Mauna Kea… really? They are 6-7? hours behind us and would still be in broad daylight!), would have alternate/other activities for children, would have a clearly thought out plan on who to include/invite, would have researched the locations (is the White House lawn really the best place, why not the Mall which has more space?)… how do you limit the number of volunteers…

    Security??? On so many levels… That alone would take up several pages!

    Many of the Clubs and institutions in the DC region already have extensive plans in place for IYA and 100 Hours of Astronomy. The Obamas have an open invitation to all of those!

    Clear Skies!
    Elizabeth

  9. Janet Sue Gagliardi

    I can’t think of anything more exciting than the study of the stars,planets,galaxies,and all that goes with astronomy.

    Malia and Sasha will love it!

  10. Bob Donovan

    What a great idea. It would be nice if the country can get away from the idea that everything is political and do something for the future of science and show the children the wonders that we see everytime we look through our telescopes.

  11. Paul Kinzer

    I see no reason why this excellent idea would cost much extra money at all, nor do I see why it would need to take much planning. I’m also confused by the idea that this would somehow be political.

    The Obamas have tight security around them at all times, regardless of what they are doing. Surely it would be at least as logistically challenging to have them leave their home and go to an already planned, and presumably public, event.

    An hour at the eyepiece in their backyard, with some discreet photos taken for later public consumption, would be relatively simple. And if use of the Jefferson telescope would be difficult or costly, I’ll gladly send them one of my scopes — which almost certainly has better optics — and I’ll even pay for the shipping!

  12. Robert Lee

    I think it would be great. I think we will find out just how “Politically Savvy” President Obama really is…
    This shouldn’t cost the tax-payers anything if done right.

  13. Dan

    This is a super idea. Might not be the greatest place for observing, but I can’t think of a better place to promote IYA and astronomy as a whole. This will be tough to get done, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Audrey is to be commended and supported. Who knows what young person this opportunity might inspire. After all, isn’t that one of the main reaseons we do open houses and outreach? This has the potential to help all those local groups in their efforts.

  14. Carol

    I tend to agree that while a Washington star party is always a good idea, this one should have been planned some time ago by people on the ground in DC, rather than by e-mail campaign from across the country at the last minute. Planning events at the White House isn’t done in a month, especially events where the public is involved. Someone in the Washington area would have also known that the Naval Observatory shares the grounds with the vice-president’s residence, and that the conditions there would be much more conducive to a star party than the brightly lit White House grounds, which I’m fairly certain the Secret Service won’t allow to be dimmed.

  15. Audrey Fischer

    The White House belongs to all of the U.S. and indeed is symbolic to the world like not other place on the planet. IYA was developed in cooperation with the UN, UNESCO, and International Astronomical Union. I am so proud and grateful for the efforts everyone has done and continues to do to promote astronomy. I wholeheartedly believe that IYA’s greatest opportunity is to promote global peace. I encourage everyone to learn more about IYA’s StarPeace. The White House grounds, even though it is by far cry anyone’s first choice for viewing stars, still holds a chance to send profound messages that cannot be duplicated anywhere else, or by anyone else. Our First Lady and her children extending an invitation to children from America and other countries to share this stellar celebration together is an unmistakable outreach and step toward global peace. This way of sharing their common link to the stars encourages international collaboration starting at a young age. A StarCelebration in the White House is not redundant to the many wonderful events planned or that already took place… it is connective. Connective, to just to IYA commemorations, but connective like never before to the world. The whole world is looking to this president to lead the world towards PEACE and also empowerment of full individual potential. This is a way the White House can send confirming messages and action about education and global cooperation. Because of IYA efforts, so much groundwork and energies are already in place in US and world-wide organizations representing tens of thousands of people which can easily increase to millions. This simple gesture by our president, through Mrs. Obama’s invitation to children of the world, is all it would take to be the synapse to explode the synergy into a catalyst of new possibilities. A small gesture for a BIG BANG!

  16. Audrey Fischer

    Considering our science education level for students is at a crisis level, and (I believe), this state is NOT due to any lack of money being poured into the school system, it is NOT due from lack of caring by teachers for the majority are very conscientious. It is partly that, with the fast-paced, two-parent working frenzy, often parents don’t get involved with their kid’s education. For the first time in a long time, because our First Family includes young children, there now exists a true role model in the White House to whom both parents and kids can look up to. If Mrs. Obama, our First Lady, and fer children extends an invitation to other children to come to the White House from here in America and from around the world to come celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, (even if only by remote hook-up) this is a message that will be heard around the world. The messages are simple, but significant: Parents, get involved with your children’s education.• IntScience can’t take a back-seat any longer. • Int’l collaboration needs to start at a young age. Audrey Fischer

  17. Audrey Fischer

    The hook-up to Mauna Kea is perfect, because now this event can begin in the daytime, expertly moderated by Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson. Children in schools and planetariums world wide can join in. Astrophotography can be done by children with the magic of robotic telescopes and the net. Pan-STARRS search for NEOs is an awesome reminder of how the role of telescopes have evolved to help protect the very survival of our planet. Way are being explored as how to allow children to be part of the PanSTARRS team and personally become part of the discoverers of the asteroid that crosses their very own pixel of this billion-pixel camera/telescope system! LRP and Galaxy Zoo are also great ways telescopes are now tools of even the youngest, that allows them to become citizen scientists. Now kids are not just reading about scientists, they ARE scientists! No wonder the telescope should be honored. But, we all know, the most important significance is to how it changed the human perspective of his place in the universe and the pure endless wonder of it all. This daytime event at the White House would wrap-up with the fireworks of the cosmos. A view of the moon from a telescope on the White House will be like no other. Volunteers and telescopes keep the cost insignificant, however taking a pass on this opportunity could cost unnecessary misses to connecting children to the universe and to other children from around the world who share the same sky. Audrey Fischer

  18. Audrey Fischer

    We will have the world’s attention to show all the exciting ways children can become citizen scientists. When the word gets out and the work by the children is shown, there will be an explosion of interest. If it’s introduced to children like a second language, the younger-the-better, there will be no holding them back as they develop their contribution potential to science if they so choose. This exposure for children at this extent is so new, that I believe the individual who chooses to *stick-with-the-program* will be light-years ahead in the understanding of science like we have never seen before, IF children develop their collaboration skills the younger-the-better as teammates with other young astronomers across the globe, we may see a level of tolerance and understanding among nations like we have never seen before. In my opinion, I will point out that the only drawback to advancement of science is when that level is not matched with the same level of maturity and harmony among Earth’s occupants. There exists both a wonderful opportunity and a sobering responsibility. Audrey Fischer

  19. Alex Rodgers

    The white house needs to be in touch with America as well as the cosmos. Their lead will show the world the we have real leaders at the helm of spaceship Earth.

  20. Enrico the Great

    Good Idea!!!
    But, get real, How exactly is this supposed to bring about world peace amd all those good things? The media will treat it as a curiosity at best, not report it at worst. The Astronomy oriented publications will of course report well on it as will the astronomy oriented websites, but, their audiances are already aware of science. Preaching to the choir!
    Still, I hope President Obama does this anyway. Some intangible good could come out of it.
    Maybe some “stimulus” spending over at NASA?!?!?!?

  21. A. Szautner

    PART 1 of 2:

    Yes, it is a “Great Idea”. In fact, it is potentially spectacular.

    Almost all of us – amateur astronomers – well know (or ought to remember) how powerful our first peeks through a telescope were in resolving our personal relationship to an existence beyond and greater than ourselves – and I do NOT mean that of the various fantasies belched forth by ‘religion’ and other self-centered supernatural or mystical traditions of hogwash – but simply the sensation one acquires when exposed to the scope of nature and the vast universe we in fact find ourselves in.

    To place a ‘star party’ within relatively easy reach of the first family is wonderful. That this opportunity has had any chance of coming this far towards fruition at all is ample testimony to the fact that the country finally voted for the right guy. I do not need to reiterate here that President Obama has continuously stressed the critical importance of science and has already proposed that NASA is, at long last, properly fortified with a decent budget to continue with its mission of science – focusing on both Earth environmental issues as well as continued robotic exploration of the Solar System – in addition to a real actualization to return to the Moon that gives manned spaceflight an actual reason for being, that isn’t just full of saying so.

  22. A. Szautner

    Part 2 of 2:

    President Obama (in case anyone has been wondering or actively doubted it) evidently clearly understands that in order to solve our present set of predicaments we must sustain and nurture science in order to support the only avenue by which human beings have ever progressed, improved or otherwise solved problems throughout history. As long as we can keep our eye on the ball and refrain from distracting ourselves by pathetic political debates engineered by completely unsupported belief systems – and we may be absolutely sure the fundamentalist religious set will continue to thwart the promise of such a national cohesion with their incessant yammering and aims to control the content of our children’s education – we can all focus far better upon the real issues at hand, such as those that new technologies may pose to our future. All the rest is stinking garbage to be thrown out, at long last.

  23. Dan

    That’s a nice thought, but with millions losing their jobs, investments, businesses, homes etc., that type of public event should probably be reserved for better times.

  24. Audrey Fischer

    Dan & Kasmir,
    I would like to suggest that *hard times* are the most important times to be reminded that the night sky is free to us all. Our problems are real but are very temporary and insignificant when we consider the vastness of space and space-time. Reflect on all we have learned about the billions of galaxies and that only 100 years ago we really did not even know that our galaxy was NOT the only one. What will be learned in the next 100 years?
    The answer to that question lies in part to how many young minds can be introduced to the telescope. How many young minds will be introduced to international outreach. Progress will not come without international collaboration.

    StarParties, just like the White House can be, are put on routinely everywhere at no cost to anyone except time to volunteers. Amateur astronomers are among the most giving, sincere folks I have ever met… constantly sharing their time, equipment, knowledge and enthusiasm. If they are called Lunatics– or Pie in the Sky, so be it– everyone has a right to their own opinion. And as far as pie… I LOVE PIE… make mine a Moon Pie– those wonderful marshmallow, chocolate dipped with star-sprinkles on top–served warm! Perfect for a lunar eclipse as many people can attest to! :>)

  25. Dan

    “Dan & Kasmir, I would like to suggest that *hard times* are the most important times to be reminded that the night sky is free to us all. Our problems are real but are very temporary and insignificant when we consider the vastness of space and space-time.”

    I respect your position, and that’s all fine for those that have existing interest, as most of us here do. However, when the mood of the country is down, millions losing everything, homes, investments, jobs etc., it would likely not go over well with the general public.

    I could just see the pundits now, as the president peers down into the eyepiece, as they caption the photographs, “The President searches for economic improvements from his stimulus plan”.

    In addition, events like this take a lot of advanced planning. What if it’s cloudy?

    Instead of a one time thing on the White House lawn, how about the President suggesting or urging schools develop an, “Astronomy week” for our public schools?

    This way most all the kids could participate, instead of just a few on the White House lawn.

    This could easily be “sanctioned” by the administration, putting their seal of approval on it. The administration could send out annual awards to schools for achievements ..Astronomy clubs could get involved, etc.

    In other words, offer everyone a piece of that pie you mentioned.

  26. Grace

    YOU GO AUDREY FISCHER! Persistance beats resistance. If you think you will, you will. I think it is definitely pie in the sky.

    The young and old should be able to see the stars and all the wonders of our sky like we did when we were children. It was amazing to look up into the clear sky and see all the beautiful twinkling stars especially the ‘Big Dipper’ among the group of stars in the constellation Ursa Major-The Great Bear or the ‘Little Dipper’ called the Little Bear both in the northern sky. Our sky was so bright and clear on the farm we could see these with our naked eyes. A lot has changed because of city pollution.

  27. Doug Arion

    Folks —

    I’m one of the individuals managing the Galileoscope cornernerstone project for the IYA, and I would be HAPPY to get a prototype Galileoscope into the hands of the First Family. If an event can be arranged, we can get the telescope and a representative of the IYA there – please contact me at darion@carthage.edu if you can help us coordinate with you!

  28. Harold

    As noted by other comments here, this certainly is a great idea, but one that needed a lot more planning and lead time. It is already March 2, 2009. There have been plans (longstanding) by others in the area that do public observing including but not limited to the University of Maryland, the Smithsonian Institution, local astronomy clubs and the US Naval Observatory. Frankly, if the Obamas joined one of the already planned events, I think it would mean even more to the astronomy community than having one of their own (notice already a complaint about the cost to the taxpayer).

  29. Audrey Fischer

    Dan, you are so right. That is exactly the goal. Everyone is invited to come to the table, and everyone has something special to offer. Astronomy clubs can adopt & mentor a school. Many already do tremendous outreach for kids. Astronomy Merit Badge Counselors are greatly appreciated by scouts. With IYA efforts already in place, the administration is missing a huge multi-faceted opportunity if it doesn’t encourage students to participate to the max & recognize schools with awards. But, what clearer way to say it than to lead by example? The White House is NOT just for fancy diplomats. The White House can make a lasting impression on kids… even kids who are participating by link from their school or planetarium. Some observatories have already offered live streaming open to the world. That’s why it’s suggested the IYA celebration at WH start in the daytime. Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson accepted moderator role. The beauty of robotic telescopes is that through the net, kids now can image deep space during classroom time. This ignites & inspires. Global Rent a Scope and the Bareket Observatory in Israel have helped bring this to many classrooms and even connected two classrooms in two countries so they could introduce themselves and then image Comet Holmes together. Now, the world is their classroom, the Universe is their book, the telescope is their tool! “Tour of the Universe by Children of the World” will be a collection of favorite astrophotography by children all around the world in a CD (& calendar) set to music with part of the lyrics sung in the children’s native languages. All kids are welcomed. Dan, you’re probably right about the potential photo caption. Pres Obama could be advised NOT to look through the scope–but, I’ll bet you he does anyway :>) Mrs Obama’s hand on her child’s shoulder while she takes a peak through the scope states:Kids, girls too, can see that science is cool with support of their parents. Galileoscope? Awesome!

  30. Jim Demastes

    There is nothing political about SCIENCE and curiosity. Let’s try to make it cool to want to learn and explore again. Young people have an aversion to looking like they are interested in science. If they see the Obamas having fun with it – who knows! It’s been a long time since Jefferson was putting together sloth skeletons in there!

    AS far as cost goes, I bet SOME company would donate a nice scope to go along with the antique. The press comes for free.

  31. Gregory

    This is a great idea that won’t cost much. Since the sky is free and I’ll as well as my astronomy friends will volunteer our time for a great event, the white house can show us many things in life don’t need to cost much.

  32. Anthony Frushour

    Awesome idea, but lots of planning involved, this should have been addressed shortly after his inauguration, or during his presidential transition period. I mean there is so much that has to be arranged for an event such as this. But it would be so symbolic, seeing as he emphasizes the importance of the sciences.

  33. Jessi

    I believe this idea has a lot of potential and, if done right, could have a profound effect.

    As many have pointed out, the power of this ideas lies more in its symbolism than in any tangible benefit. It isn’t just about astronomy, this ancient scientific discipline that has seen so many changes since its beginnings. Astronomy is the perfect discipline for fostering international collaboration and communion, since it is the one thing that is truly “Universal”. It’s true, isn’t it, that whatever differences we may have, every being on this earth shares the sky. Therefore, as Audrey boldly states, it has the potential to foster goodwill and world peace by revealing to us such a large measure of common ground. Is it going to end all wars? Nope. But can it help? Maybe. Can it hurt? Not that I can see.

    For this reason, it is important, for children especially (but not only!) to look to the night sky for inspiration and hope in a troubled and changing world. Amid threats of global warming and political unrest and economic hardships, the night sky remains unchanging. It is always there, and it cannot be bought or sold or consumed or destroyed by pollution (though our *view* of it increasingly is) or any labor of mankind.

    Celebrating the International Year of Astronomy is a perfect way to look back on and marvel at all that we, not as Americans only but as Earthlings, have accomplished and learned and achieved in the 400 years since Galileo first peeked at the stars through a telescope and questioned our place in the Universe. And as technology advances, what we can learn and what we can see through modern telescopes has ever more power to amaze and inspire.

  34. John Andrews

    We all live at a great time in the history of the world. It would be nice to share the experience that was at one time free for everyone to see and enjoy, but becauce of air and light polution has become a event to plan and hope the conditions are just right for viewing. I think it would be nice if we could work to bring the beautiful night sky in to an every night kind of thing to see. The new family in the White House might help point that out, while share a good time with the rest of us.

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