Controversy over college rocket group coming to AL sparks outrag


Many are coming to the defense of a group of California college students who want to come to Huntsville for a very prestigious rocket competition.

Controversy has been swirling around the NASA sponsored contest. It draws teams from universities and colleges from across the country who are lucky enough to score a coveted spot. But one of the teams, from California, isn’t allowed to attend this year and it’s sparking outrage.

There’s a California law on the books that went into effect last year that bans publicly-funded travel to states deemed to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Alabama is one of the eight states on the list.

But that law is not the only roadblock the rocket team from a college in southern California has been faced with in their quest to come to Huntsville and it has lots of folks fired up.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle is disappointed in how the situation has been handled. He’s done a lot behind the scenes to help the California community college students participate in the renowned rocket competition in the Rocket City.

“Politics sometimes gets in the way of common sense,” he said.

The 2018 Student Launch competition, slated from April 4-8 and hosted by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, brings 60 school teams and challenges them to design, build, test and fly a high-powered, reusable rocket to an altitude of one mile above ground level while carrying a payload.

But the Citrus College Rocket Owls can’t come this year because of a California travel ban to Alabama. Citrus College is a community college located in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendora, California.

“We felt like it wasn’t right. We’re putting politics in front of education. We would love to have those young people be able to come here and be able to experience the educational aspects of the rocket launch and also to see some of the things in the rocket world that they won’t get to see at home,” Battle said.

The California law won’t allow publicly-funded travel to certain states. Alabama is on the list because of legislation some say allows private adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex parents.

Homer Hickam, a famous Huntsville author and rocket scientist, says none of that has anything to do with the competition.

“I discovered that these kids had raised their own funds. They weren’t going to use public funds. They were going to use their own funds. Looking at it some more, I saw that there were a number of University of California rocket teams who were coming because they had raised their own funds as well,” he said.

Austin Langrehr, the team leader of the Citrus College Rocket Owls, said the team being denied traveling to Huntsville for the NASA SL competition started with California Law AB1887.

“However, Eloy Oakley, the chancellor of California community colleges, sent out a memo last August saying that students and faculty of community colleges could not travel to the banned states ‘regardless of funding.’ We had already raised the private funds needed to travel, but the school would not permit us to go,” he said. “The chancellor later came out and said that his office has not denied the Rocket Owls from going and it is ultimately up to Citrus College’s administration to decide whether we can travel or not. The school, namely the acting president Dr. Perri and the acting vice president of academic affairs, Dr. Spor, have stood by the decision to not allow our travel and have not budged after multiple petitions to allow our travel.”

Marshall Space Flight Center says the Citrus College team can still participate in the rocket engineering design challenge from California. Their project results just can’t be counted in the local competition in Huntsville.

“Citrus College remains in the NASA Student Launch engineering design challenge and is eligible for prizes contingent upon the National Association of Rocketry engagement in their ‘official’ launch (alternate site) to verify launch, recovery, altitude and ability to launch again. The team cannot win peer awards that are voted by teams attending in Huntsville,” a spokeswoman said.

NASA officials are also working to arrange for the Citrus students to visit one of their facilities in California.

Hickam says the students are still going to miss out on a great trip.

“I took that as most unfair. I started fighting it on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else I could,” he said. “These kids not being able to come here and network with their peers and meet NASA engineers and scientists. This competition is more than just launching rockets. In many cases, the kids meet people and learn things that allow them to set themselves up for their future careers.”

He’s reached out to the chancellor of California community colleges and the Citrus College administration.

“Gay politics aside, which this has nothing to do with anything, these kids deserve to come to this competition. Don’t you have any compassion? You have compassion for a lot of folks but don’t you have any compassion for your own students? So far, no reply,” Hickam said of the college.

Battle also contacted Oakley in a letter and then contacted the California attorney general on the matter.

“When we put politics in front of education, we’re taking away from the value of what these young people could learn here. They could learn things here about rocketry, about rocket ships from NASA, about missile defense and all of the other agencies that we have here. This may be a future home for some of those young students,” Battle said.

NASA Watch, a NASA-related social blog that’s read by aerospace people around the world, now has an article about it taking up for the team as well. They say Citrus College should be facilitating education, not blocking opportunities for their students.

Citrus College did not respond to a request for comment.

Several other California colleges on the list of those attending the competition also did not answer questions about their teams when asked if they were still making the trip to Huntsville.

Cal Poly Pomona has competed in the NASA Student Launch competition for many years and their student team plans to attend this year using nonstate funding for travel, a spokesperson said.

University of California, Berkeley stated, “Representatives of the team have informed us that they are aware of AB 1887 and are planning their  trips and budget with its restrictions in mind. For the trip to Alabama, the entirety of the cost is currently paid for by the people going on the trip, the reps said.”

UC Davis’ team is no longer taking part in the competition due to timing, workload and costs, officials stated.

Paul Swatzel, a math professor at the college, said the Rocket Owls should be allowed to attend the competition and urged officials to look for creative solutions to this problem that will prevent the Rocket Owls from suffering any unintended consequences of the law.

Hickam said he’s going to keep pushing for answers.

“I’m not going to give this up. I’m going to be fussing about this a year from now. It’s just not right. It flies in the face of fairness, ultimately,” he said. “They just pass resolutions and laws that make them feel good. And who gets punished? Not the big guys in California. There’s all kinds of loopholes in that law that allow them to go anywhere they want to go. It’s the little people. They’re the ones being crushed here. These kids especially.”

Battle stressed in his letter to the chancellor that Huntsville is proud to be an inclusive community.

“There’s a place in this for us to make sure that we always put education first,” Battle said. “They need to be able to come here and experience the education that we have here and what rockets scientists have developed in the Huntsville community. If they can do that, then they become young citizens who can be in this industry for years and years to come. This gives them a proper job path forward.”

“These poor students are being kept from coming because of something that has nothing to do with them or NASA or this competition,” Hickam added.

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