White House Star Party

By Phil Plait | October 7, 2009 2:30 pm

This is pretty cool: tonight, President Obama will have a bunch of professional and amateur astronomers over to the White House to show the First Family and a group of middle schoolers the sky. The event coincides with the International Year of Astronomy and World Space Week.

And may I say? It’s so so cool to finally have a President who respects science. Yay!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Politics

Comments (62)

  1. What a difference a year makes!

  2. Mike Wagner

    Afterwards the middle schoolers will be sacrificed so that the sun may rise again in the morning.


  3. I’m curious how the Republicans will spin this since they seem to go crazy about every little thing that Obama does.

    “Obama is trying to indoctrine our children with the evil idea that the universe is older than 6000 years old!”

    “Obama is wasting his time looking at the stars instead of doing more important stuff, like bombing other countries.”

    “Obama is spending all of his time with godless astronomers while not giving equal time to holy astrologers!”

  4. Wonder how the neo-cons will spin this?

    Obama worships sky idols proving that hes really a muslim heathen born in Kenya that is really the anti-christ!!!!!eleventeen!!!one!

    ETA: Darn, too slow and it looks like Iason Ouabache beat me to it.

  5. It’s alright, Larian. We should make this into a contest to see who can come up with the funniest fake Republican talking point about this. Ready, go…

  6. The ultimate proof that Obama wasn’t born in the US. He wants to search the sky for his home planet.

  7. Agreed! This is wonderful! Buzz Aldrin is also supposed to be in attendance there too. What a fantastic idea.

  8. Alan in the US

    I heard that they were going to have a star party when George Bush was in the White House, but were afraid Dick Cheney would mistake the attendees for prowlers and come out shooting.

    It will be interesting – and probably annoying – to hear what the moronic talking head will have to say. Perhaps “star party” will be misinterpreted as visits from the Hollywood heathen, or an attempt to contact the alien mothership.

  9. Gemini

    It’s good to have a president that’s interested in astronomy.

  10. Rich in Ohio

    These posts make me weary.

  11. Randy

    Republican talking points

    Obama seeks other planets to force abortion and death panels

    White House spends defense budget on new space mission

    Obama ABORTS previous science policy allowing SAME SEX astronomers to look at the stars until 9:11pm

    How were those?

    It was a great speech by the way, glad to see common sense creep into politics

  12. coolstar

    Wow, best thread I’ve seen here for a LONG time. Congrats all! mucho funny.

  13. TomInAlaska

    Actually, this is the type of meaningless fluff that this president should be devoting all his time to. Just keep him away from the economy, medicine, and anything else which has the potential to damage the country.

  14. Sili

    Is it even possible to see anything in Washington?

    I whined about lightpollution over on UT, too.

  15. Jeffersonian

    It is cool, Phil.
    And it’s not something I can see Bush having done. He would have been too scared off angering his xtian base (who would have stood opposed to anyone learning the truth about our universe). Sometimes you just have to smile and acknowledge that it’s a new day in America.

  16. Obama reaching to the stars to spread his socialist policies while getting a buzz.

  17. Pres. Obama peers through a telescope, and states:

    Hey! I can see Planet Zmorph from here!

  18. Gary

    Shrub would have looked through the wrong end of a telescope and announced that the moon had moved too far away to consider any return missions there.

  19. I love how everyone seems to know how Republicans would respond to this presidential star party :-O As an ACTUAL republican, my only response is that while it great to see the president hold a star party, it is nice to see his respect for science lead to a reverse in the previous administration’s decreases in the unmanned spaceflight budget or shoring up the manned program, as well as understanding the differences in the mission of NOAA and NASA… oh wait…

  20. Alan in the US

    I certainly wasn’t talking about the average citizen Republican, but rather the strident voices that seem to have taken over the airways and media and never have anything good to say. Whine and complain seems their only order of business.

    I suspect anyone, whatever their political affiliations, with an interest in science is quite happy to see the President hosting a star party – even under the adverse light pollution of DC and the even more abusive lights of the media. It is a real and welcome breath of fresh air.

    Clear skies, Alan

  21. timmy

    How about we make it a requirement to have at least 30 political parties? Do away with Dem and Rep.

  22. David D.

    It is never a bad thing to see someone so influential who is interested in science. I echo what Alan in the US says above.

    But …
    “What a difference a year makes!”

    Really? Deficit at 1.4 trillion dollars. Unemployment at 10%. Gitmo? Still open. Gays in the military? Still “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Rendition? Still our policy. Afghanistan–you know, the “good war”? Policy in disarray. Etctera, etcetera.

    Hope and change!

  23. jasonB

    Maybe he should host a “Let’s read the Bill before we vote on it” party

  24. Anne V

    Darn, and I was just happy because my old friend Derrick Pitts was there from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia!

    …and Mike Wagner, you leave my middle schoolers alone! Go sacrifice some college freshmen or something 😉

  25. Chip

    In addition to having a star party tonight for middle-school students, President Obama also awarded the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Recipients here: http://www.nationalmedals.org/

    In September Obama also spoke at the National Institutes of Health in favor of biomedical research and medical science.

  26. One of the things that made me angry about the movie “The American President” was a shot in which we see a beautiful starry sky, and then the camera pans down to show stars all the way down to the D.C. skyline (or the roof of the White House, I forget which.) For a movie where one of the main characters was an environmental lobbyist, the filmmakers didn’t really do much to show the actual environmental problem of light pollution in Washington, D.C.

    I hope everyone got to see something, and somebody brought along the appropriate filters.

  27. Paul

    The description I read online didn’t mention any actual telescopes, just some virtual experience dome or whatever. Then again, I don’t know if any actual stargazing can be done from DC anyway.

  28. Charles

    Sorry, not on topic, but I tried to respond to PZ’s blog (requires registration, arghh), when he recently mentioned your TAM trip to London.

    Yeah! Give that Phil Plait a poke…

    Hah, I bet he’s already talking with a British accent.

    He’s been TAM’d, and London TAM’d at that.

    We’ll never recognise him when he returns.

    He’ll probably use British spellings too…

  29. There were plenty of telescopes there (trust me…I didn’t get to go but I shipped two of them for my colleagues to use). I have it on good authority that Obama even looked through a Galileoscope!

  30. DemetriusOfPharos

    Hmm… fake NeoCon quotes, I’m usually good at these. Lets see.

    “Obama spent some time today investigating the crimes of Lord Zenu. While he’s at it, maybe he could ask all those astronomers to read his palm.”
    “Obama and his cabal of intellectual elite spent some time indoctrinating our nation’s youth with the idea that the stars have any substance to them outside of God’s plan.”
    “Obama should spend less time looking at the stars and more time interacting with teabaggers.”

    Meh, I get points for the last one at least.

  31. Neocons:

    President Barack HUSSEIN Obama kept middle schoolers up late on a school night to indoctrinate them into the geocentric theory… and it’s only a theory.

    It’s currently 9:32 locally after waking from a nap.. then I found this: Flandrau Throws Star Party Tonight! (until 9:30).


  32. Bruce

    Bush’s 2008 science budget was almost triple what Obama’s stimulus package provided for scientific research. Is this the change the liberals voted for?

  33. @Bruce
    Is that the same scientific stimulus package the repubs accused of being pork barreling?

  34. Nemo

    Bruce, the stimulus package adds on to the regular budget; it doesn’t replace it.

  35. Gideon


    I know most people are liberals on this website. I just wish they would grow some balls and admit that Obama doesn’t care that much about NASA, and even less about increasing the funding for NASA. Phil knows this too.

  36. Flying sardines

    @ 30. John Paradox Says:

    Neocons: President Barack HUSSEIN Obama kept middle schoolers up late on a school night to indoctrinate them into the *geocentric* theory… and it’s only a theory. …

    Er .. don’t you mean heliocentric there? I think “Geocentric” (Sun orbits Earth not vice-versa) is the one the anti-science rethuglicans believe in .. 😉

    @ The BBBA* :

    “And may I say? It’s so so cool to finally have a President who respects science. Yay!”

    Yes, you may indeed say that – & I’ll second it! Couldn’t agree more. 😀


    * Britain Based Bad Astronomer! 😉

  37. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Yep, agreed. Obama is awesome! 8)

    So much better than the last President who will go down as America’s worst ever.

    So much better too than the alternative on offer at election time – I mean I bet Obama can tell the difference between a planetarium and an overhead projector! 😉

    BTW. BA anything from the MESSENGER fly by of Mercury to post about?

    Did you hear about the discovery of another huge outer ring of Saturn’s too – the Phoebe ring? Can I please request some posts from you about those? Pretty please with a shepherd moon on top?

  38. TW

    [i]And may I say? It’s so so cool to finally have a President who respects science. Yay![/i]

    Once again you fall for the dog and pony show.

    Ill wait for results, instead of speeches, or having kids on the lawn, before I say he respects science.

    So far he has done little that is different from his predecessor…other than be a better orator at the teleprompter.

  39. Rocketboy

    You would think that something would have been done at the Naval Observatory, but that’s just me I guess.

  40. adastragrl

    So long as you stick to bright objects like Jupiter, double stars and clusters, you can actually see quite a bit. And last night was very clear although a bit breezy (bad seeing). Trying to show faint fuzzies for the first time is not the way to start a general public program… even starting with the Double Double (through that 8″ sct) was a bad idea… To see it with that scope you need a hi power eyepiece and really good tracking… the telescope was setup alt-az… I would have started with Jupiter…

  41. Amy F.

    @Rocketboy The Naval Observatory was a backup site. I think they just wanted the pomp of doing it at the White House.

    And to those who are wondering, yes, even with the awful light pollution, we can do stargazing in the Nation’s Capital.

  42. pumpkinpie

    I was “at” this star party. Three planetariums in Minnesota remotely joined the presentations in one of the portable planetariums. Dr. Carter Emmart of the Hayden Planetarium led tours of the universe, and students in our audiences listened, watched, and asked questions. It wasn’t just a video feed; everything he did in that dome showed up on ours!

  43. Ian D

    That’s cool. I was in D.C. the other weekend… I’m sure they’ll have fun looking at the only visible object, they better hurry though, it is waning.

  44. We at CAS and UVa had a “tie-in” event at McCormick Observatory (it was the usual 1st Wednesday of the month CAS monthly meeting anyway). We didn’t advertise the event, though, as there isn’t much parking room up there (as Phil can attest).

    Here is the OSTP’s blog, where you can get more info on the event:

    We had Dr. Kelsey Johnson of the NRAO and UVa talking about galactic categories (in a talk titled “From There to Here and Here to There, Funny Things Are Everywhere”) and her Red Hill Elementary School Astronomy Club. We’ll be doing an outreach event at the school in a week.

    Afterward we had a look at Jupiter in the 26″ Clark refractor. Life is good!

  45. winkyeah

    This was a cool event that should spark interest in star parties and observation of the night sky. I’m a Republican and a Conservative and I’m happy he took the time for such an event. I don’t agree with him on much, but I do agree with him that we need to nurture our children to know and love science of all kinds.

    Yet, as usual, Phil can’t leave his philosophical wang in his pants. I would love, absolutely LOVE to read a post from Phil in which he doesn’t infuse his philosophical/ideological opinion.

  46. Navneeth

    There’s a video at the IYA website with footage from the event

  47. Mike

    This is pretty cool that the president would do such a thing.

  48. onefish

    My son was there. He had a fabulous time and got to shake the President’s hand. It had a big impact on him, he was still excited this morning. The kids did get hands-on time with a telescope, and my son was excited with the portable planetariums since he’s only seen the “hard shell” versions. I think it sounds like a great event and a very strong message, what possible reason could one give for not encouraging learning and exploration. Oh, and he got to see Saturn through a nice rig.

  49. Van Rijn

    Now if we can just get him to care about basic math and accounting.

    I tease, but, seriously… the “Wow, a pro-science President” effect wore off a while ago for anyone who actually pays attention. And I have to agree with some of the more cynical posts here- most likely a dog and pony show put on for entirely pragmatic reasons.

    Are the D.C. skies dark at all? Anything good visible now? I’ve been out of the hobby a while. I used to know in my head everything that was visible at any moment.

    So much better than the last President who will go down as America’s worst ever.

    I don’t know… I despised Bush, but in discussing it with some friends who are pretty good amateur historians (and one who used to teach history in her day), I’m thinking he’ll be considered somewhat less than average. I know that sounds like a crazy claim, but, well, it’s far too much to go into here. We’ll see.

  50. pumpkinpie

    I don’t understand why people complain so much about the lack of dark skies in DC. (Ok, well I do as an astronomy teacher–it’s too bad there is so much we can’t see.) But in regard to this event–should they not have bothered setting up telescopes because they could only see the Moon and Jupter? Many of these attendees will not ever get a chance to venture far enough from DC to see a true dark sky and/or would never have thought to try. This may end up inspiring them to do so, become activists for reducing light pollution, going into a STEM field, and the list goes on.

  51. Now, if we can just get Washington to give more money for Science! (And by that I mean for NASA and by NASA I mean to help build the next flight system and by building the next flight system I mean for going to the Moon! Yeah I’m biased! :))

    As far as Bush being the worst president ever, you can believe that if you want. It’s subjective. That’s not what this blog is about. So lets get over it and move on. 😉

  52. Nemo

    Lewis, I support manned missions to the Moon, but I don’t pretend it’s for scientific reasons. For science, look to the unmanned program. Humans have been to the Moon; unmanned probes have made it all the way to freaking Neptune, and at a fraction of the cost.

  53. MadDoc

    I am normally apolitical and do not often comment on these sort of things, but I was unlucky enough to catch a Fox News blurb this morning that showed footage of the President looking through a telescope and saying (in reference to what he was looking at) “…that’s far away”. The news commentator, Doug Luzader, then added “…just like the health care plan”.
    Unfortunate that a nice outreach promoting astronomy was used as a vehicle to promote even more political clatter.

  54. 36. Flying sardines Says:

    @ 30. John Paradox Says:

    Neocons: President Barack HUSSEIN Obama kept middle schoolers up late on a school night to indoctrinate them into the *geocentric* theory… and it’s only a theory. …

    Er .. don’t you mean heliocentric there?


    Geeze, just because I’ve had a few days (about three running over the last week) when I couldn’t sleep for over thirty (30) hours, you have to go and point out that I completely got it backwards. Censorship!!

    /Glenn Beck



  55. Alan in the US


    Modern computerized altazimuth telescopes track well, even at high powers.

    Clear skies, Alan

  56. Levi in NY

    The White House YouTube channel has a half-hour video up about the star party, featuring astronaut Sally Ride advocating for science (yay!):

  57. David D.

    “Unfortunate that a nice outreach promoting astronomy was used as a vehicle to promote even more political clatter.

    Kinda like this blog post, eh?

  58. The Ill Tempered Klavier

    I remember reading not too long ago that, knowing full well that even the most innocent comment he made was likely to be picked up and given a ridiculous political spin, Lincoln developed the habit of saying things like “Please let me be silent.” in casual situations.

  59. adastragrl

    @Alan in the US

    Clearly not if the pres didn’t see it! But really, to start with the double double? pretty esoteric… why not Jupiter?

    Saturn?? Are you sure? It wasn’t visible from DC at that time… maybe Jupiter…

  60. Obama the antichrist!!!!! I thought that Bush was Christ himself!!!


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