By Lee Rasizer, CCA Director of Media/Public Relations
In darker times, they may have looked up to the sky, searching for answers.
Soon, they’ll peer up to a darkened sky and see solutions by their own design.
Thomas Horning, Gregoria Olivas and Juan Garcia-Colque are three of the Community College of Aurora’s handpicked, five-person contingent to attend a NASA camp this June, where they will develop payloads to fly on a suborbital rocket.
To say this operation began from the ground up undersells the perseverance, determination and hard work it took for this trio to get to this point.
They soon can say they are NASA Grant Scholars.
The labels affixed to them in the past were far less prestigious.
Not long ago, Horning was a homeless teenager, sleeping in a parking garage near a Borders bookstore in Silver Spring, Md., which he used as his own personal library while dreaming of space.
Olivas got mixed up in the gang and drug scene in Colorado Springs, and even after she tried to extricate herself, bad fortune continued despite the best of intentions, including a mid-life goal of becoming an engineer.
Garcia-Colque was raised in poverty in Guatemala by grandparents who tried to provide for him but weren’t always completely successful when it came to putting food on the table and clothes on his back. His journey toward normalcy began about 15 years ago when he moved with his wife – “and a lot of debt” – to a new start in the United States as a computer programmer who wanting much more in life.
Heading to Wallops, Va., Flight Facility and the RockOn! Workshop will serve, not only as a resume builder, but a confidence builder for each of these students.
They are well aware they’ve been handed golden tickets and are eager to redeem them.
“Our backgrounds may seem a little dark, but something that needs to be taken into account is we’ve made the best of our problems,” Garcia-Colque said.
“They’ve pushed us to actually move forward and not backward, despite our difficult pasts. Some people decide not to move forward: ‘It’s bad. Nobody’s helping me. I’m not going to do anything.’ But if you actually have the strength to say, ‘I don’t want to be in this place and experience these bad situations,’ that’s what actually pushes you away from it.
“The key is not wanting to be in that position.”
That a potentially life-changing experience will occur in a place called Wallops seems fitting given all of life’s punches they’ve endured.
The workshop is designed to engage university and community college students and faculty from around the country interested in learning how to develop science payloads for flight. The eighth-annual RockOn! Workshop the CCA group will attend runs June 20-25 and focuses on the fundamentals of building scientific experiments and the importance of working together in a cohesive manner.
The payload is launched on the final day of the weeklong training program, weather permitting, on a two-stage Terrier-Orion Rocket that flies to an altitude of 73 miles.
The workshop has proven to be a launching point for careers in aeronautics and astronautics for past participants, too.
“I hope that it makes them understand, if they didn’t already, that there are things possible for them that they might not have guessed,” said Victor Andersen, a member of the CCA Science faculty and part of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium that secured 12 spots statewide for Colorado Community College System students at the RockOn! Workshop.
“It’s not always true, but if you come to a community college, sometimes people set their sights too low,” he continued. “We have students who have gone way beyond what they ever thought they’d do, or what their ambitions were. And it’s just a question of showing them that they can do anything the Boulder or Mines students can do.”
The idea of college, at one point in time, seemed far-fetched to each of the CCA participants in the aeronautical workshop.
Horning’s early vision probably comes closest to what is now unfolding before him. In third grade, he was the kid with the space helmet and NASA gear. A middle-school vacation to Florida was more noteworthy in his mind for the stop at Cape Canaveral than Disneyland. He watched intently as Curiosity was launched in November 2011 as part of a mission to Mars.
“I’m one of the few nerds that actually watch NASA TV,” he said, adding with a laugh, “They need better programming.”
Horning’s own life veered off course during high school, when he spent a half semester on the street. His daily excursions to the nearby bookstore served as his education while formal schooling was on hold.
“I just read every day and tried to learn as much as possible,” he recalled.
His father eventually bought him a ticket to Colorado and Horning did just well enough to graduate and begin the process of joining the Marines.
He was a poolee, waiting to be assigned to boot camp, when “for a lack of a better term, I broke my back.” Horning ended up working at Walgreens, and despite getting promoted on a couple of occasions, his physical condition deteriorated.
Mentally, he wasn’t fulfilled and the life-altering decision to return to school was made. “I decided to attempt what I always liked doing and thought about, which is physics.”
The decision to attend the RockOn! Workshop, though, wasn’t a no-brainer. He had to be convinced. “I needed summer classes and I also had applied for a NASA internship, which was driving all my plans, so it took awhile and other people telling me I’d regret it if I didn’t look into it. I looked into it and learned I definitely would regret it if I didn’t do it.”
The main attraction was the chance to work alongside people he’s admired from afar for many years – ever since he remembers saying to himself that he wanted to send something up toward the stars. Horning envisions a future plotting the trajectories of spacecraft. And getting a chance to see professionals doing actual work in the science and engineering at NASA is as important to him during this program as the actual technical aspects of integrating a payload for flight.
“Everyone who goes into physics wants to be the Einstein theoretician breaking rules and making a name for themselves,” he said. “But, to be honest, I’ve always found doing research for NASA would just be the most exciting opportunity.”
Breaking the rules is something with which Olivas has been all-too-familiar during her life. She’s worked hard to ensure that her missteps don’t define her.
“I did a lot of things I’m not proud of,” she admitted. “But it’s made me who I am.”
She uses the term black sheep often to describe her upbringing. She recalls being told she would never become anything. Hardship seemed a constant companion.
“It was always, ‘bad this, bad that,’” she explained. “But it’s like I tell my kids, just because we make bad choices doesn’t make us bad people. I always tried to stay positive. I have a lot of patience. I try to stay happy. And I’m doing this because everyone said I couldn’t.”
What this is only partially revolves around the NASA opportunity.
Science and engineering are fields where females are highly underrepresented.
Sprinkle in her past, and the uphill battle may seem insurmountable to some.
“I already knew that it would be a task to break through some of that,” Olivas said. “And, as I went through school, I had to get past that at first, thinking I wouldn’t get picked because I’m female or something like that. My husband helped me through it.
“He was like, ‘You have to set the stage for other females, other Hispanics, just anybody.’ I’ve overcome a lot of things in my personal life that have been struggles before where I am now, and it would have been easy to say, ‘I can’t do it.’ This can help set the stage for somebody to say that they can get up there, if they choose.”
Yet, even when she attempted to navigate that straight path, trouble seemed to find her. Attempting to become an engineer while also serving as a work-study already had challenges.
“Try doing it while homeless and without a vehicle,” she said. “That’s what I had to do.”
During the spring semester, a well-intentioned purchase of a recreational vehicle started a domino effect that forced Olivas to miss some classes. The RV – purchased for $2,800 as her living space – broke down two exits down the road. It was towed off the road, but it had no tags and was impounded. That’s when outstanding warrants, for both her and her husband, for traffic violations were uncovered.
Shelling out more money to extricate them from those issues didn’t end the string of problems. Her mother, with whom she only recently had begun rebuilding a relationship, fell ill. Her husband was hospitalized. But even after selling the RV and moving to a hotel, “the money didn’t last long.”
The low point came when she and her husband “slept on the sidewalk outside the front of the Denver Coliseum because the situation was beyond anything we could do.”
“I literally wanted to explode from the inside out,” she added.
The entire ordeal meant Olivas had to miss some classes, and in doing so, she felt she was letting down her teammates who were preparing for a spring-semester robotics competition in Alamosa. But, at the same time, she embraced the willingness from CCA faculty and staff to help her get through her hardships and kept trying to move forward.
Andersen knew some, but not all of that back-story, when he extended the NASA invitation. But Olivas’ passion and drive stood out.
“I don’t like to quit,” she said. “I can’t preach to my children to keep going if I can’t do it myself.”
A new life
As a child, Garcia-Coque can recall playing with TinkerToys and the joy that he felt assembling something. That the toy wasn’t his but belonged to one of his friends frames his humble roots in Central America.
He’s been piecing together an existence ever since.
“All of my life I always thought I would be one of the pawns and I was going to be the first one on the front and the first one to be beaten,” Garcia-Coque explained. “Having an opportunity like this has changed the entire picture.”
Now the father of teenagers, he was 29 and desperate to change his life when he left Guatemala. His accumulated debt meant he had less than nothing in his pockets when he arrived.
“I didn’t start from the ground up,” he said. “I started from under the ground.”
But the rebuilding process began with his penchant for building things. The TinkerToys of his youth, though he didn’t know it at the time, were the building blocks of his future of creating programs on a computer.
He now makes a living working at Dish Network in that field. But his return to school represents a bigger vision of what his future could resemble.
His NASA camp invitation is proof that what he envisioned can be real.
“It opens up doors,” he said. “Some of us may think that one day we can maybe work for NASA. Maybe. Maybe not. But we can work in the same field, which is something I’ve been looking forward to for years.”
Like Horning and Olivas, sacrifices have come with the territory.
For Garcia-Coque, it’s meant long hours studying and working, without time with his children. The counterbalance is the personal pride he said he feels when his grades or test results reflect his efforts.
“CCA, by no means, is an easy step. It’s challenging. It’s inspiring,” he said. “It also has been the best choice I’ve ever made.|The RockOn! Workshop is an add-on that “means a lot.”
“You’re talking about the major leagues,” he said. “It’s something you’re not going to get just anywhere working, and, being in school, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Garcia-Colque said he’s going to Virginia for the program “as a blank notebook, willing to learn everything.”
The future ahead
Having already worked as Horning’s partner during the robotics project, the two are comfortable with their working styles and already have been exposed to one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Olivas was on the other team so the two only know her work tangentially.
The three potentially could turn this experience into a longstanding partnership.
Two other NASA programs are possible next steps for participating students in the RockOn! program. RockSat-C and RockSat-X involve the development of the rocket payloads during the next academic year with oversight on design, testing, integration, and launch readiness. Those programs culminate in the final selection by a NASA team of the most able payloads to fly next summer.
If boundless determination is a prerequisite for advancement, there should be no stopping them.
“I think there’s a special view of the world that you get from going through hard times and persevering through them that a lot of people don’t have,” Horning said. “I’m not saying people should go homeless – don’t do that. But it definitely gives you that fight and that mentality that you’re going to work hard whether or not people are going to see it. And I think that’s when people see it the most.”
Olivas, Horning and Garcia-Colque will make the trip with two other CCA students, Philip Baranowski and Steven Kenney, who were selected shortly after the initial trio was identified.
But a bond between the first three selectees already is plainly evident.
“Are there people who have the same drive or more drive? I cannot tell. I cannot speak for anybody else,” Garcia-Colque added. “We can’t be the only three. But are we the best choices for this? We’re going to make it that.”