Delayed takeoff: Rocket Owls face state travel ban

Rocket Owl members, left to right, Philippe Schicker, Austin Langrehr, Oscar Martinez and Josh Maggins work together on their rocket on Dec. 1 in the Physical Science building. They work to prepare their rocket for the NASA Student Launch program. Stephanie Mejia / Clarion

Balancing work, school, and personal lives can be a challenge for the average student. Now imagine designing and planning to build a rocket for NASA on top of it all.

The Rocket Owls, seven STEM students on campus, have mastered this balancing act as they dedicate their time learning and spreading knowledge about physics.

The group has been selected for the highly competitive National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Student Launch Program, a competitive research-based experiment that involves colleges and universities across the nation.

The team was selected to travel to Alabama to the Student Launch day event in April of 2018 after they passed their initial review with a very high score.

However, there is just one thing standing in the way of the team’s journey to complete the final step of the program: the launch.

The Rocket Owls are up against a state law that presents a roadblock for their travel plans.

State measure AB 1887 was passed into law by the state legislature in January, banning state funded travel by state employees or representatives to Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota and Texas.

Consequently, the Rocket Owls will not be able to travel to Alabama to participate.

The law states that California is “a leader in protecting civil rights and preventing discrimination” and should not support or contribute to the economies of states that foster “discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”

In a memorandum distributed on Aug. 3 encouraging each local community college district in the state to support the travel ban, Chancellor of California Community Colleges Eloy Ortiz Oakley made his stance on the legislature clear.

“As a matter of policy, the Chancellor’s Office will not approve requests from our local community college districts to travel to an AB 1887 restricted state, regardless of the funding source for the proposed out-of-state travel,” Oakley said.

Even if the Rocket Owls were able to fundraise expenses for the trip through grants or other means, they would not be allowed to represent Citrus College at the event.

The advisor to the team, Lucia Riderer, Ed.D., said that although she understands and supports the idea behind condemning discrimination, she is extremely disappointed this year’s team will not be able to complete their NASA Student Launch journey.

“I am unsure about the impact that the sacrifice made by Rocket Owls will have on a larger scale, especially when five teams representing other colleges from California are traveling to Alabama to launch their rocket and complete the NASA Student Launch program successfully,” Riderer said in an email.

As of now, other universities from California, including Cal Poly Pomona, University of California, Santa Cruz and California State University, Long Beach will be allowed to travel to Alabama through the use of private funding.

The eight-month commitment to the project is meant to develop research and design vehicles for the Space Launch System. The program is built around a NASA mission and real-life application, not textbook knowledge.

So far, the Citrus physics enthusiasts have completed their proposal, several design reviews and have participated in a teleconference with NASA officials to overlook their progress on the rocket design.

Hunter Lupien, physics and music major, joined the Rocket Owls in October of 2016. He said his favorite part of the group so far has been passing each milestone and completing each step in the process of building the rocket.

Lupien said with each milestone, the feeling of pride and sense of accomplishment only grew.

He said that it was right after the teleconference with NASA officials that advisor Riderer informed them of the state law and its impact on the team.

The team was pretty disappointed at the news, seeing as to how they had passed the initial proposals and reviews with flying colors, Lupien said.

“I see why they are doing it, but I don’t think that it’s not really doing anyone any good in this situation,” Lupien said.

Rocket Owl member Austin Langrehr, electrical engineering major, said he understands the intent of the law, but it is too narrow and is more detrimental than beneficial.

“I respect the California Department of Education for taking a stand against discrimination, but it doesn’t benefit the people in the eight states with the ban, and it is only hurting California students,” Langrehr said.

The team will attend the Citrus Board of Trustees meeting on Dec. 5 with hopes to petition against the decision and plans of drafting a letter to the chancellor are in the works.

The Rocket Owls said they will continue to express their discontent with the decision in the hopes of gaining campus support and being able to represent the Citrus College physics department at the launch day event.