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Up, up, and away! Some budding Ventura County engineers take on flight in rocketry program

Members of the Oak Park Rocketry class prepare for a test launch in Moorpark.
Members of the Oak Park Rocketry class prepare for a test launch in Moorpark.

Some Oak Park High School students learn and use skills like math, physics, and engineering to design and build rockets.

It’s the buildup to a rocket launch in the Tri-Counties. But, this isn’t SpaceX, or another space flight company in action. It's a team of students from the rocketry program at Ventura County’s Oak Park High School, preparing a small rocket for flight. 

"It's my first year on the team, and I kind of came into it not knowing a lot about rocketry," said Diah Varrier, who is one of the students in the program. "it's a very hands-on experience. We learn all the basics to be able to build it by ourselves."

The program was started by the school district’s superintendent as a club in 2016, and is now a class. While it sounds like fun, and it is for the young rocketeers, it’s also a learning experience because they have to use skills like math, physics and engineering.

"All of these rockets that you see that these kids are building are hand built. The fins are made out of plywood, there's cardboard tubing for the body, and everything else is 3D printed now," said
Alan Prescott, who is a teacher at Oak Park High School. He oversees the rocketry program.

Prescott said the students take it seriously, because they want to earn a spot at the American Rocketry Challenge national competition.

Some of the program’s students are at Underwood Farms in Moorpark, preparing for a test launch. It’s a great spot for the flights, because it’s easy to find the rocket after it flies, and its parachute deploys.

But, flying the rockets isn’t what you might think. The objective isn’t to go as high as possible. It’s to reach an exact height, which requires students to use their skills to calculate the parameters of the flight as precisely as possible. Matthew Horowitz is a team member.

"For the American Rocketry Challenge, we intend to hit a height goal of 820 feet, with a time goal of 43 to 46 seconds<' said Horowitz. "It's scored like golf. A perfect score would be in that range, and count as zero."

The handmade rockets have to meet a number of specifications. They have to be at least 25” tall. They can’t weigh more than 1.4 pounds. They have to land by parachute. And, they have to carry a payload of one raw egg, which they can’t crack.

While the team has been focused on its efforts to earn a spot in a national competition, today we are seeing a practice launch.

After a countdown, it takes off with a loud woosh into the sky.

The students rush over to retrieve the rocket after it lands. The team checks some of its onboard electronics. There's a beeping noise, and beeps tell them how high the rocket went, reaching nearly 1300 feet.  Because it was a practice event, they were seeing how high it could go.

Prescott said these students put a lot of work into their rockets. "It's trial and error. Not everything happens, and works the same every time," said Prescott.

"We have a goal, and can expect an outcome, but that doesn't always happen. You still need to be willing to come back and do it again. You have to be willing to reach a point where failure is an option, and know when to reel it back."

Many of these students said while the actual moment of flight is exciting, the real challenge, and the real fun is figuring out how to do it right. Some of them are doing it as a hobby, but others think they'd like to be part of the next generation of NASA scientists.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.