@rtphokie goes to Washington

space geek placed placed in front of the White House north portico for scale
in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building auditorium


I was privileged to receive an invite to the White House State of the Union tweetup. I and about 50 others met at a state of the art auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for viewing of the enhanced video stream. One of the major themes of the address was education.  Other participants I had a chance to talk with included political bloggers, along with advocates for housing and labor practices.  I most enjoyed talking with a librarian who was particularly interested in open data initiives and how she might make best use of them in her library as well as a teacher for Georgia who posed some great questions to the president’s staff  about No Child Left behind and how it’s impacting his classroom.

Following the State of the Union Address, a Q&A session with Brian Deese (Deputy Director National Economic Council), Jennifer Palmieri, (Deputy White House Communications Director), Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting), Roberto Rodriguez (Special Assistant to the President on Education Policy), Mark Zuckerman, (Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council).  The full session can be viewed below.  Many of the questions were related to education, especially once Secretary of Education Arne Duncan arrived from Capitol Hill.

I had a chance to shake Secretary Duncan’s hand and chat briefly about classrooms resources, particularly those produced by NASA, and making them more easily accesible to educators.  That capped off a very long, but very inspiring day which started at 2am for me.

The day started out with a long drive from Raleigh up to DC.  Once I got to Springfield, VA and hit the traffic, I opted for the Metro and was downtown and standing at the White House visitors center within 50 minutes (driving and finding a parking garage would have taken well over 2 hours).  The White House had arranged a tour which lasted about 45 minutes.

Vermeil Room (Architectural Digest)

The tour began in on the ground floor in the east wing and continued onto the center hall with a stop at the Vermeil Room, the White House library (often used for TV interviews) and the room where White House china is displayed.  I found it interesting that china is purchased by benefactors rather than taxpayers.

center hall (Pete Souza)

Then up the stairs to the main level:

The tour covered the main floor of the White House (outlined in this brochure) where state functions take place

East Room (History Channel)

Up the stairs and on to the East Hall where concerts are held, the media assembles to capture the President walking down the main hall for press conferences.  As our Secret Service Agent turned tour guide told us of the history of each painting, including the Stuart’s portrait of George Washington which was once saved by Dolly Madison, it’s hard not to get a bit overwhelmed by it all.  Especially once I realized I was standing in the very place where only a few months earlier the President had stood and announced that “Osama Bin Laden is dead.”

The tour moved on to the green room where our guide told us about the painting “Independence Hall in Philadelphia” by Dutch artist Ferdinand Richardt which was purchased by an antiques dealer in India for $7 covered painted over, cut from its frame.

Blue Room furniture (Kvalsvik)

The next stop was the oval blue room, where the White House Christmas tree is setup during the holidays.  Our guide told us of a former president who sold off the French furniture in the room when congress refused to appropriate funds for replacements (he hated the style).  While most of the furniture has been recovered and returned to the White House, be on the lookout for the few remaining chairs that have yet to be found.

The tour moved on to the Red Room and stories turned to William Henry Harrison, the oldest president elected at the time.  Harrison was determined to prove doubters wrong and provided a marathon inaugural address on a cold wet day and, likely as a result, became the first president to die in office.  Opposite the portrait of William Harrison is that of his grandson Benjamin Harrison who apparently learned something from his grandfather and delivered an inaugural address half as long and presumably wore a coat.

State Dining Room (White House)

Nearly over, the tour moved on to the state dining room on the west end of the house.  Our guide pointed out the blessing, read before each state dinner, carved into the fireplace by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Originally written by John Adams in an 1800 letter to his wife: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

Our tour moved down the center hall where we exited out the North Portico, but not before our tour was held up for some “official business”.  It was time for Bo, the first family’s dog, to have his walk.

Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and CTO Aneesh Chopra

After the tour, it was off to White House conference center across the street to the White House Conference Center adjacent to Lafayette Park for a discussion with Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra. The discussion was around entrepreneurialism and open data initiatives.  I was particularly interested in progress that has been made in bringing federal data out for use by journalists as well as concerned citizens.  States have followed the federal lead as well.  Chopra brought along

So how do you top a visit to the White House? With a visit to NASA Headquarters of course.  Situated a few blocks south of the Air and Space Museum, NASA HQ is snuggled up to 395 and houses administration for NASA’s efforts across the agency including science, aeronautics and spaceflight.  Press conferences originate from the James E. Webb Memorial Auditorium near the main entrance and visitors can

left to right: Jim Adams, Deputy Directory Planetary Sciences; me; a Mars Exploration Rover marvel at Apollo and Shuttle era space suits as well as the Nobel Price for physics won by Dr. Mather in 2006. Hard to top that. I think my office has an old telephone directory that visitors can look at. I visited with Planetary Sciences staff and talked about the JPL Solar System Ambassadors program and the outreach it's volunteers are doing. I mentioned my latest adventure, volunteer teaching a space weather class for a middle school in Durham, NC. I was whisked off to meet a project scientist in the heliophysics division. She had some wonderful ideas on reaching out to the kids provided excellent resources that I cant wait to pass on.
row after row of NASA's history in these boxes

It was staff meeting time so I visited the HQ library where I gathered more information on NASA resources (if the librarians are reading this, those posters have already gone to a pair of NC elementary schools.)  Also got a tour of the history office’s archives and learned more about what they do and the publications they put out.  Like any other federal agency, originals are cataloged and stored by the National Archives, much of the history of the agency, and the space race as a result, is painstakingly organized into those archives.  Its the starting point for a lot of what has been written about NASA and space.

Everyone I met at NASA HQ was welcoming and eager to share more about what they do.  The pride they take in the work is evident as is the dedication to education.  Each person I met whether they are a from scientists to archivist were that much more excited to offer whatever help they could in efforts to promote STEM education.