I was honored to be one of a handful of amateur and professional astronomers invited to bring our telescopes to the second White House Astronomy Night on the front lawn last Monday, October 19th (the first was held in 2009). Exhibitors were given 3 hours in the afternoon to set up, leaving us plenty of extra time for wandering the beautiful gardens and seeing the other displays. The crew responsible for growing salad on the International Space Station arranged their garden box under red lights, SpaceX and Occulus showed off cutting edge technology both visceral and virtual, and a huge planetarium was set up to give city visitors a peak at truly dark sky.
We arrived back that evening alongside 5 astronauts decked out in their flight suits. Congressmen and dignitaries flocked in next to local school children and teachers being honored for their ingenuity in Science Technology Engineering and Math. Ahmed the clockmaker from Texas was there with his family. President Obama gave a moving speech on the importance of innovation and why science is crucial to the future. A high school student gave the president a look through her telescope and he noticed that the Moon appeared backwards. For a moment he was just another visitor to the eyepiece, marveling at the wonders we share with everyone.
In the cold clear night, under the bright city lights our telescopes showed off colorful Albireo, Neptune, the backwards first quarter Moon, and the fuzzy Andromeda galaxy. When all you can see of our nearest galaxy is a faint smudge, it takes a good story to bring out the wonder: “The light that you just saw traveled over 2 million years unhindered through the vast emptiness of space to land on your eyeball and nowhere else. When those photons left the huge swirling Andromeda galaxy, our early ancestors were just moving out of trees. In the 2.5 million years it took that light to get from there to here we developed tools, language, control of fire, and eventually and even these telescopes to be able to look back and see it.”
There we were – dignitaries and watchmakers – excited that a smudge of light had traveled such distances just to inspire us. The thrill of the encounter connected us and we looked with hope towards the next generation of explorers. At the end of the night I was able to give away the 8” Dobsonian telescope I’d assembled only that morning, thanks to a generous donation by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. An enthusiastic DC schoolteacher told me of her plans to share it with her community and I knew it was going to a good home. I left with high expectations for our future in the hands of the students and educators I met there.
This article was originally published by the incredible Astronomers Without Borders.