A freed Cuban prisoner and an astronaut are also among those being fêted at President's big speech

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
January 19, 2015 04:45 PM
Joshua Roberts/Landov

An astronaut, a drug-store executive, Ebola aid workers and a freed Cuban prisoner are among those who scored golden tickets to Tuesday night’s State of the Union address by President Obama.

First Lady Michelle Obama invited 22 people from all over the country to join her and Dr. Jill Biden in their special box in the gallery of the House chamber.

Traditionally, the first lady’s guests embody some feature of her husband’s policy that he intends to highlight in his annual speech before the full House and Senate.

And they tend to be reliable applause lines.

Not to mention inspiring tear-jerkers.

Among those will be Malik Bryant, the Chicago boy, 13, whose heart-rending message in a “Letters to Santa” program last month – “All I ask for is safety. I just wanna be safe,” the south-side Chicago teen wrote – wound its way to the Oval Office and was answered by the president himself.

Now Malik will see his pen pal in person.

“He’s very excited,” said Michelle DiGiacomo, CEO of DirectEffect, the organization behind the “Letters to Santa” program. “We’ve never had a Santa letter be quite as famous as this.”

For the big occasion, Malik went shopping with his dad for a new suit, and he left for Washington on Monday with his mother. “I hope this blesses his life and enhances his future,” DiGiacomo said.

Joining Malik in the seats beside Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden will be astronaut Scott Kelly, who heads to the international space station in March to begin a history-making, year-long mission aboard the orbiting science laboratory. Kelly, whose twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark Kelly is married to former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, was featured on TIME magazine’s cover last month and research comparing the two brothers’ medical data from their time in space is expected to advance the president’s goal of a human mission to Mars by the 2030s.

Alan Gross, the American aid worker whose five-year imprisonment in Cuba ended Dec. 17 with Obama’s decision to begin normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba is another of the first lady’s guests, along with Larry Merlo, the CEO who made his CVS stores the first major retail pharmacy chain to stop selling cigarettes.

See the full list of Mrs. Obama’s guests at the White House’s special State of the Union Web page.

Reporting by HILARY SHENFELD

Highlights from the 2015 State of the Union Address

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