On a cool and nearly cloudless Wednesday evening, some 150 middle school students gathered for what is believed to be the first star gazing event ever held at the White House.
The floodlights that normally bathe the South Lawn had been turned off. So most of the illumination came from two TV light towers that focused on the Diplomatic Entrance to the White House, which is located under the Truman Balcony. The Washington Memorial shimmered in the distance.
Behind the crowd and to the right on the lawn were two large white inflatable domes, each marked with a large NASA insignia. The first dome had a sign out front that said “snacks.” Spread around the lawn in the dark were 20 telescopes, aimed skyward.
Astronauts as appetizers
The crowd broke into applause at 8:03 p.m. as Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon and Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, emerged from the White House. They stood with the assembled teachers and students waiting eagerly for Barack and Michelle Obama.
There was loud cheering at 8:07 p.m. as a casually dressed first couple emerged from the White House. The President was wearing a black windbreaker and grey sweater. Mrs. Obama was in a blue top and tan pants.
“Welcome to all the students and teachers and amateur astronomers,” Mr. Obama said. In addition to those in the Fall sky, he said there were “a few other stars out tonight.” Then he introduced White House Science Advisor John Holdren, Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride, and Mae Jemison, the first African American astronaut.
Two 15 year old students stood at the podium with the president. Both had discovered rare cosmic events. One had discovered a supernova when she was 14, the other found a pulsar when he was a high school sophomore.
Lots of mysteries left
“If they can discover something great, so can any of you other students here tonight. All you need is a passion for science,” Mr. Obama said. "There are a lot of mysteries left and a lot of problems for you students to solve,” he added. “That is why we are working to reinvigorate math and science in schools.”
Noting that earlier in the day he had presented the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, Obama said, "Here is my question, which one of you are going to come back here to claim your prize?” Several students in the crowd raised their hands. “What will your great discovery be?” he continued.
After speaking for eight minutes, Obama moved to the eight inch telescope which had been set up next to the podium as Science Advisor Holdren instructed him in its use. The President crouched to get a better view. Holdren said the instrument was focused on twin stars called the "double-double" in the constellation Lyra, some 160 light years away.
Waiting for Sasha and Malia
The Obamas then stood for several minutes chatting with Holdren and White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. Soon it became clear what was causing the delay. The President walked into the residence and emerged with daughters Sasha and Malia. Sasha was in a plaid top and red pants and sneakers, Malia in sweater, black vest and jeans. As soon as the girls arrived, Obama walked with Sasha and the first lady walked with Malia through the crowd of students to the first inflatable dome.
And with that, the TV lights were turned off, making it even darker on the South Lawn as reporters were escorted out and the middle schoolers began their White House astronomical adventure.
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