Stargazing at the White House

The President Attends a Star Party

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about a star party being held at the White House in honor of International Year of Astronomy.  A long-time friend of ours named Martin Ratcliffe was asked to bring a fulldome system to do some astronomy demonstrations to the many attendees at the party.  By all accounts, it was a great success and we were thrilled for Martin’s great opportunity. Well, last week Martin wrote a wonderful account of his experience and posted it to a couple of listservs I read. I recognized it as a wonderful way to show that astronomy can reach everyone — up to the most powerful leaders and their families. So, I asked Martin’s permission to reproduce his comments as a sort of “guest entry” in my blog and he graciously agreed.  Here is the story of the White House star party, in Martin’s own words.

Martin Ratcliffe and the Sky-Skan system at the White House. Image copyright Martin Ratcliffe, used by permission.
Martin Ratcliffe and the Sky-Skan Definiti PD II system at the White House. Image copyright Martin Ratcliffe, used by permission.

Many of you know by now that Sky-Skan was one of the honored attendees at the White House Star Party last week. You might also have heard that the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his family, Michelle, and two girls, Sasha and Melia, visited the Sky-Skan dome during the event a week ago, October 7. I’ve been meaning to send more details of what happened, and after some pressing things I find myself a week later still wanting to post to my friends and colleagues on Dome-L. So here goes.

Sky-Skan was invited to be at the White House Star party with our portable Definiti PD II system about two weeks ahead of the event. One dome was already planned, the GeoDome owned by NASA’s GSFC. With over 120 school children at the event, and less than two hours for them to experience all the activities NASA had planned, two domes were needed to get them all through in time. Carter Emmart from AMNH presented in the GeoDome, and I and an AMNH educator, Suzanne, presented in the Sky-Skan dome. I was using DigitalSky 2 and Carter was using Uniview. The overlap between these two applications is, of course, Digital Universe, so that became the focus of the show for both domes, with the individual strengths of each system being used for other interactive parts of the presentations. (CCP NOTE: the Digital Sky Definiti PD system is exactly what we have in our production dome at Loch Ness Productions!)

It was planned to have the inflatable Starlab dome under a NASA tent of there were strong winds. The day turned out to be perfect, except for strong gusts, which caused set up problems for the dome. After an interesting afternoon on the South Lawn of the White House manhandling a wayward Starlab dome, I finally got what I needed, and set up under one of  the NASA tents. You all know the struggle of climbing inside one of these domes, so I had little expectation of the First Family crawling inside.

I began the first show following President Obama’s remarks, with 25 middle school kids gathered around the perimeter of the dome. After a few minutes into the show, I heard activity at the entrance, turned around in my seated position, and there is President Barack Obama entering the tent, meeting me at eye level, and saying “Don’t worry about us”. Now I’ve done a lot of planetarium shows in my time, but I have to say this is the most interesting turn of events ever to happen! “Thanks for coming, Sir”, I said, and Suzanne and I continue with the show. The only space to sit was was right next to the Definiti PD II.

Imagine me seated in a semi-crouched position next to a small laptop and the Definiti PD II projector, with some grassy space next to it. The President and youngest daughter sat 3 feet in front of me next to the projector, Melia sat next to me at the console, and Michelle Obama was just behind me.

So what did the first family experience in the dome?

We had already taken off from Earth and were orbiting, when the President asked a question that had come up during their dinner that evening about the cause of seasons. Suzanne gave a great explanation, and I’m flying DigitalSky 2 in real-time. I added a short demo on DigitalSky where I showed the changing Sun illumination at the north pole of the Earth over a six-month period.

Happy with that, I backed away from the Solar System, showed recent images from the previous week’s flyby of Mercury by the Messenger spacecraft, discussed light travel time from the Earth to the Moon, across the solar system, and in the sky was hanging Orion, which slowly distorted its shape. I told a personal story of teaching my own youngest daughter (a little older than Sasha) about Orion, by using glow stars on her ceiling for a month before taking her outside to see if she recognized anything. Immediately seeing a familiar pattern, she now calls it “my Orion”. Perhaps there will be glow stars on the ceiling of the White House bedroom before long!

After 10 minutes, the family quietly got up to leave, The President thanked me as they quietly departed, and I returned to continue the show for the kids. Normal White House events have the President staying no more than 30 minutes – the Obamas had requested 45 minutes for this event, and ended up staying over an hour, and everyone recognized their real interest in astronomy.

Of course no cameras are allowed in a planetarium ;-), so no pictures were taken inside the dome, but I have a strong visual memory of that scene of two young girls and their parents starring up at a starry sky, the Earth hanging there as a beautiful jewel, and a planetarium projector giving its performance.

I’ve represented the planetarium community at a lot of events, particularly during my tenure with IPS, and never imagined being in that place, at that time, on October 7, on the White House lawn. I can tell you how honored and privileged I feel to have been able to do so. Both Carter and I were also inspired, invigorated, by the experience at the White House. Thanks for reading!

Martin Ratcliffe
Director, Professional Development
Sky-Skan, Inc


  1. Pingback: Als Obama Epsilon Lyrae erblickte: Star Party vor dem Weißen Haus « Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

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