I’ve done a lot of “cool” things as an educator at this Museum: performed a solar system dance with Miss America, chatted with astronauts, and given people their first awe-inspiring views through a telescope. But I have to say, my most recent experience was truly out of this world.
On Monday, October 19, 2015, I participated in the second Astronomy Night at the White House. This event is designed to get youth excited about astronomy, space exploration, science, and engineering. More than 80 stargazing events were hosted around the country that night, including one at our own Public Observatory. But the flagship event, with nearly 300 guests that included students, scientists, astronauts, and popular science advocates, was held on the grounds of the White House, and I was there.
My role for the evening sounded simple: set up a telescope for the president to observe the Moon. Except, it turned out to be anything but simple! After getting the Observatory’s 28-centimeter (11-inch) telescope onto the stage and pointed at the Moon, I noticed the Moon kept drifting upwards in the view. The telescope’s “tracking,” following objects as they move across the sky, was off because my tripod wasn’t perfectly aligned north. But there wasn’t time to fix it. In the minutes before the president appeared, I adjusted the telescope until the Moon was almost out of sight at the bottom, estimating how much it would shift during the 15 minutes of his speech. Then it was time to take my seat and wait.
The president’s remarks made it clear he was really excited about hosting this event and enjoys science. When he stepped up to the telescope’s eyepiece and looked in, he said, “Wow … I have to say, that’s really spectacular!” I’ve never felt such a sense of relief in my life — he could see it! He even lingered over the view and commented on details, with a distinctive sound of awe coming through in the tone of his voice. The president of our country got to view something beautiful, and I was part of making it possible. I felt honored.
I wasn’t the only person from the Museum who participated in Astronomy Night. My education colleagues Geneviève de Messières and Jenny McIntosh worked for months with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to plan this event. Geneviève helped organize the astronomical observing for the guests, coordinating 18 telescopes and their enthusiastic operators on a busy lawn full of excited people. In thinking back on the experience, she said, “All of the work and planning was for those students I watched filtering in through the gates. If just a few feel inspired to become scientists, the evening was a huge success.”
Jenny brought an authentic-looking spacesuit reproduction, which is usually available to the public at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and put it on the stage where it stood next to the president during his remarks. I lost count of how many actual astronauts and other people I later saw taking pictures with it! Jenny recalls how she felt about the event, “It was magical to be on stage where our equipment was, where the president was soon to be, with the lights and stars twinkling plus the crowds all excited. I couldn’t help but think, ‘I have the best job in the world.’
We really do have the best jobs in the world. This Museum is a fountain of amazing opportunities for an educator, from the great questions visitors ask every day to the wide-eyed “wow moments” that people have at the observatory. And now I’ve helped the president observe the Moon. I wonder what I’ll get to do next?