What would President Kennedy have thought, I wondered as I surveyed the surreal scene? Deep inside the White House eight middle school students sat in black leather executive chairs reserved for the President, Vice President, and his top national security advisors; the polished oak boardroom table hitting them at chest level as they munched hotdogs and hamburgers. This room is where the nation’s most critical decisions in times of national crisis had been made by every president from Kennedy to Obama.
The students, 12-14 years old, were in town to participate in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. Working collaboratively with scientists in their home state of Minnesota and students, their teacher and scientists in the D.C. area, the children had come to share their experimental results and rub elbows with real scientists attending the annual meeting from around the world. Tours of the White House and Smithsonian were an added highlight, but to everyone’s surprise, the group of young scientists had their standard White House tour extended as they were ushered through layers of additional security to find themselves unexpectedly in this room.
With anxious excitement the students answered questions about their science projects posed by a top national security official seated at the head of the table where moments before he had chaired a meeting of the nation’s leaders in national security as they assessed the explosive revolutions transforming the Middle East. On the other side of the globe democratic protestors were being shot and autocratic rulers were being toppled from power after decades of iron fisted rule as our national security officials monitored the rapidly changing situation on a cold and windy Saturday afternoon in Washington.
The official then explained the strategic repercussions of the revolution now unfolding in Bahrain because of that nation’s pivotal geographic position in the Gulf region and its delicate balance point in the political tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Then pointing to the presidential seal on the wall behind him he explained that the American eagle faces in the direction of the olive branch grasped in its talons during times of peace, but in times of war the eagle turned toward its talons grasping arrows. The most powerful defense our nation has is not its weapons, he said. President Obama believes it is our superiority in science and technology, and the strength of the American people. He spoke with great respect of a four star general in the Marines and leader of national security who was not only a patriot, but also a physicist. He recognized and honored the children as individuals who would be the scientists of America’s future.
Later that day as we toured the National Air and Space Museum I rattled off descriptions of the displays as if the objects were my own personal treasures. The sleek black X-15, dropped from the belly of a plane and jolted by rocket engines at speeds of over Mach 6 to pierce the edge of outer space; the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules and Lunar Landing Module; an exhibit placing the viewer inside the cockpit of Apollo 11 as a video displays the scene that Neil Armstrong watched through the portholes of his spacecraft as he crisply narrates his descent and touch-down on the surface of the moon. I knew the script by heart, having lived all these events as a child.
There is no doubt that President Kennedy’s vision to promote scientific research in the challenging adventure of the space program had a powerful impact on me becoming a scientist. I noticed too that my scientific colleague from Minnesota and my wife, a biology teacher whose students were participating in the AAAS meeting, knew all the stories behind each exhibit. President Kennedy saw advancing science as the most critical aspect of national security. Now history was unfolding to the wisdom of Kennedy’s vision. It was not missiles bringing down Middle East Tyrants, it was the internet. Developed from the primitive electronic circuits inside the guidance systems of rockets, electronic computers are now in the hands of people around the globe, and guiding them to a better future.
For the first time, though, all the space technology on display that once sparked the superlative “space age” adjective applied to the most advanced technologies looked archaic. These objects had truly become museum pieces. Countries like China, India, Iran, the national security advisor told us, are pouring great effort into science education, and students in many countries now outpace students in the United States in math and science.
We all heard this message from the President in his recent State of the Union Address, but I wonder if science education, like “mom and apple pie” is just filler to buoy a politician’s speech. The room fell silent as the official was handed a document from an aide. Looking up he told the kids that the President had just returned from California and Oregon where he had met with CEOs of high-tech companies. With apologies he explained that he needed to meet with the President in ten minutes and that an aide would see us out after we finished lunch.
Overwhelmed with excitement the students devoured their meal and questioned the aide, a Marine, about his experiences in the White House. The familiar knot in the stomach of any parent who has taken their children to a fancy restaurant began to churn. The table was becoming strewn with crumbs and poppy seeds from the hamburger buns. My eyes searched the glossy table top and leather seats for greasy fingerprints. Periodic “shushes” lowered the volume of the excited conversations, but their effect was temporary.
Suddenly the door burst open and a tall athletic secret service agent burst in. “What’s going on in here!” he demanded. The children screamed. A thirteen year-old boy, who could have resembled the preadolescent president, sprung from his seat and tackled the man around the waist screaming with joy. Not a secret service agent, it was the President of the United States! The seats emptied as the children surrounded him in a middle-school group hug. “Where are the teachers, he asked?” He met each one and thanked every one personally with a handshake. He told the kids how important science was to the nation and congratulated them all on their work.
We were all stunned. This was not a photo op. The meeting was not scheduled. The President of the United States had just stepped off the helicopter and on the way to an important meeting with staff to discuss national security, he made the decision to visit and congratulate the young scientists.
Photographs are not generally permitted inside the White House, but the President made an exception. All he asked was that we keep it for our personal treasure and not post it on the internet or make it public. I wish you could see the beaming faces of the kids and teachers surrounding the president, the one boy still latched to the President’s waist like a child hugging his father returning from a trip. Standing beneath the Presidential seal, President Obama looks so perfect it might have been a picture contrived using one of those Obama cut-out props tourists use to place themselves in a photo with the President. It all seems like a dream, which indeed it was. But the kind of dream that is true.