How to build a rocket, or achieve any other goal

I’ve been thinking for a while now that I should write something at greater length about how to build a rocket. Not the technical stuff – I’ve written extensively already about epoxy and airframes and electronics – but just the whole journey and mindset. I started with no knowledge or experience and, through a lot of trial and error, I still have no idea what I’m doing – but I could at least share the lessons I’ve learned so far.

smiling man in jeans and green coat standing outside holding a large white and red rocket horizontally
i built this

Perhaps these lessons could be generalized to a lot of other things. Not everyone necessarily wants to build a rocket, or so I’m told. But everyone has their own goals, just as ambitious and often even more so. And everyone has to complete some sort of personal or professional journey in order to get there.

So in the spirit of inclusiveness, here’s what I’ve learned since starting my rocketry journey that can be more broadly applied to any ambitious (or totally mundane) goals in your own life.

1. Set the goal. Figure out exactly what you want to do. This sounds like an obvious starting point, but it’s often easier said than done. You likely already know what you’d like to do, but sometimes you have a general idea and it’s just a little vague. Try to really get specific and measurable. For example, “I’d like to learn more” about some particular topic may be a little fuzzy, whereas “I will complete – and pass – this online course” about that topic is more specifically achievable.

2. Do some research. Find out everything you can about your specific goal and how to make it happen. Google it and poke around on the internet. Ask smarter and more experienced people for advice, and find a mentor. There may be more than one way to achieve your goal; there may also be large obstacles you didn’t foresee. If you’re anything like me, you likely have no idea what you’re getting into – and the more you learn, the more overwhelmed and discouraging it may be. Pro tip: don’t allow yourself to get discouraged too easily. Remember that other people have faced much larger odds and there’s always someone who has done something even more ambitious and/or crazy (of course, they did not always survive the attempt, so plan accordingly).

3. Create a plan. Once you’ve set a narrowly targeted goal and done some basic research related to it, you need a plan. Create a framework where you list every major step needed to achieve the goal. If each step appears daunting, break it into sub-steps so that it’s more manageable. Depending on your original goal and its complexity, you may need to drill down several levels here – maybe some of the smaller steps are still too much, and they need to be broken down further. Keep going, creating something like an outline, and get down to the level where you can complete the first step today – immediately. You may need to do this over several iterations, going back and revising the plan a couple of times to fine-tune it. If it’s too vague, then it’s too hard and won’t get done.

4. Jump in and get started. It’s tempting to just keep revising and tweaking the plan to perfect it. Resist this temptation. While you certainly need to think through your goal, do some research, and come up with a plan, you also cannot continue to plan forever. At a certain point, you need to just jump in and get started – otherwise you will be waiting indefinitely. And there’s a lot to be said for real life experience, and trial and error. Once you start, you’ll run into obstacles you didn’t know about, and perhaps could not have possibly known about, until you moved from the planning phase to the execution phase. You’ll realize certain things were more difficult than you thought, but you’ll also discover entirely new things that you really enjoy, and never would have known about otherwise.

5. Learn from mistakes. Keep plugging away. A slow pace is fine as long as you are making measurable and continuous progress. Remember that when you learn new things, your brain literally changes, forming new physical connections. This is amazing when you think about it. And along those lines, you will not only run into obstacles but you’ll also make some mistakes. Some will be unforced errors that you easily could have avoided. Other mistakes will inevitably happen no matter how well you planned or how much research you did. That’s fine. Don’t get discouraged – as the saying goes, sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn. A mistake or a loss can easily be transformed into a powerful lesson.

Bonus: celebrate completion – and then pivot and reassess. If you follow this plan and have the determination and willpower, you will get there. Don’t worry. And as soon as you achieve that goal, you’re entitled to celebrate and relax. But you may find that after completing this journey, your goal has shifted or evolved. That’s okay too. You are now a different person, with more knowledge and experience than when you first began this journey. As noted previously, your brain has physically rewired itself throughout the learning process. So post-goal completion, you may want to pivot to set a brand new goal, or to build on your previous success. Go for it: you have wisdom now, and you know you can do difficult things.

I’ll expand on each of these in some future posts.

West coast road trip day 5: Los Angeles

Finally made it to Los Angeles!

green and red cactus, succulents, and various desert plants
desert plants

The climate and environment changed slowly but steadily for the entire drive down the coast. You can see the dramatic differences more easily when comparing pictures from when we left to when we arrived. The Pacific Northwest is – as you’d expect – much more green, wet, and cloudy. Southern California is – also as you’d expect – dry, dusty, sunny, and hot. We haven’t seen any evidence that it actually rains here so far, although theoretically it must rain at some point. Right?

mexican food restaurant and painted mural on building with city street in foreground
tacos everywhere

It’s true that tacos are on every corner in LA. So is interesting artwork.

front yard of house with desert plants and dry dirt
local plants

Cactus and succulents are also on every corner, and literally line the streets. The landscaping varies from one house to another, but this type of yard is not unusual at all here.

I’m posting these pictures late, but we made the 1,100+ mile trip down highway 101 in about five days. It was incredibly scenic, and we barely scratched the surface – we could have easily extended the trip to 10 or 15 days and done it at a much slower pace, and we still wouldn’t have seen everything. It’s hard to top driving along a scenic coastline next to the Pacific Ocean, from beach towns to dense forests of ancient redwoods.

Going from Seattle to Los Angeles is a bit of a culture shock, separate and apart from the major change in climate. The city is a lot bigger and seems more chaotic (although to be fair, we just arrived, so everything is unfamiliar). And to take an example at random – drivers here are much more aggressive. Whereas in Seattle they are safe and courteous almost to a fault, in LA they will speed, tailgate, and frequently blow through red lights. Of course, we’re originally from Chicago, so these things are not quite as big a culture shock as they otherwise might be.

We’re only in LA for 12 months, and we plan to make the most of it. Expect more posts and pictures as we explore the city and surrounding area in southern California!

West coast road trip day 4: the “avenue of the giants”

On the fourth day of our road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles, we drove through even more redwoods in northern California. In Humboldt Redwoods State Park there is a long stretch of road you can take, separate from highway 101 but more or less parallel to it, that winds through the forest. It’s called the “Avenue of the Giants,” appropriately, and it’s spectacular.

view upwards towards the sky in a forest of tall trees on all sides
pretty tall trees

It’s definitely slower than 101 because of narrow turns and occasional stops (plus everyone is driving for the scenic view, and going very slowly as a result), but it’s worth the extra time. You just have to envision yourself as being in a parade, going no more than 20 mph, and you’ll be just fine.

sign for humboldt redwoods state park
welcome

There are other areas you can branch off and visit in this large state park, too, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to do anything other than drive through from one end to the other. Something about this forest feels majestic, though, like you’re in a sacred place.

forest of tall redwoods
majestic redwoods

After this, we drove a few hours further through northern and then central California, passed through Santa Rosa, and eventually crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, for which we later received a bill for an unpaid toll in the mail. Well-played, bridge operator.

This was our last overnight stop before the final leg of the trip: SF to LA.

West coast road trip day 3: redwoods

On the third day, we finished driving down the southern Oregon coast, entered northern California and spent some time at the beach in Crescent City, and – after waiting on some major road construction on highway 101 – finally made it to the legendary redwoods. We stopped at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and went on a short hike, although there was much more to see!

coastline with ocean and beach next to mountains
southern oregon

The coast in Oregon is really beautiful, although the further south you go, the more you start to get California vibes. Maybe it was just getting sunnier?

trail leading through forest with tall trees and fog in distance
an enchanted forest

The stops along the way also don’t disappoint. This was one of several that we made, at the “natural bridges” viewpoint. You can see why it’s named that in the next picture.

rock formation in water, surrounded by trees and thick fog
natural bridges viewpoint

This is a rock formation out in the ocean forming a “natural bridge” across the water. Just another pit stop along the way!

sandy beach with ocean on a sunny day
crescent city beach

Eventually we crossed into California (where we were even stopped by state customs officials and asked about any produce or plants we may be bringing across state lines). The first sizeable town is Crescent City, and we stopped at a restaurant called SeaQuake for a late lunch and then checked out the ocean. Our first California beach!

two people standing next to extremely large trees, on a wooden boardwalk in the forest
these are some large trees

Later, we made it further south to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, one of several areas where you can see the redwood forests. We went for a short hike, although it was getting later in the day by this point (a familiar theme on this trip). Our five month old baby, Ava, was a real trooper. She definitely enjoys going on hikes, but of course she gets all of the benefits (fresh air, amazing sights) while expending no energy and being effortlessly carried around.

West coast road trip day 2: Oregon coast

After a brief interlude in Portland, we headed out the next morning for the Oregon coast and Pacific Ocean. We’ve previously been to Astoria and Cannon Beach in the far northwest corner of the state, and we had a long drive ahead of us, so we saved some time and went southwest through Tillamook to Pacific City, and drove south along the coast from there.

coastline with beach and large rocks in the distance on a cloudy day
rocky coast

The Oregon coast is beautiful, with a mix of beaches and high rocky cliffs. The coast is also dotted with seaside towns: some of the bigger ones as you head south are Lincoln City, Depoe Bay, Newport, Reedsport, Coos Bay, and Port Orford – and at some point you eventually exit Oregon and enter northern California.

On the second day of our trip, we made it to town called Bandon, just south of Coos Bay.

But on the way down, we stopped for one incredible hike: Cascade Head trail. We heard great things about this trail and were looking forward to checking it out, especially since it was one of the few things we’d built in extra time for on the drive down. And then of course, just our luck:

trailhead sign stating trail is closed
closed?!

The trail was closed.

Well, we made it this far, and we weren’t going to let a sign stop us. We forged ahead on the trail – along with a lot of other people we ran into along the way – and I’m glad we did.

trail through a green forest with tall pine trees
cascade head trail

The trail started at ground level through a large forested area but had a pretty steady elevation gain. After a while, we emerged onto the top of a large hill with a grassy open plain – and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and the coast.

view from the top

We paused to rest and take a few pictures, and then began the journey back down. I would highly recommend this hike if you’re ever passing through the area. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay longer or check out nearby trails, but we had a long drive still ahead of us – and a baby whose patience was quickly wearing out!

West coast road trip day 1: Oregon zoo

As mentioned in my last post about general updates and major life events, we just moved from Seattle to Los Angeles about two weeks ago. While movers loaded and hauled away most of our stuff, we also needed to transport a car, and we figured it would be a good opportunity for a once in a lifetime scenic drive down the entire west coast, starting from near the Canadian border and ending quite a bit further south. We crammed everything we could into the car (including a 5 month old baby) and headed out from Seattle after a long and chaotic moving day.

The drive was just as scenic as expected, and more. We took highway 101 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway) pretty much the entire way down, which often follows the coast and is right on the Pacific Ocean (although some parts are further inland). If you google something like west coast and route 101, the first results that pop up are “The Classic Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip,” with “classic” being swapped out for other adjectives like “ultimate” or “epic,” depending on the particular article and the level of enthusiasm of its author.

hand drawn map of highway 101 along west coast
the route we took from seattle to los angeles (on the left, along the coast). image credit: fodor’s.

Regardless, it was an amazing drive. We went through incredibly scenic areas, from dense forests to rocky cliffs along the coast, and also visited several large cities after Seattle, including Portland and San Francisco.

We started the trip at a more leisurely pace on the first day by just driving from Seattle to Portland, and we spent some time sightseeing a bit before moving on. In particular, we visited the Oregon Zoo in Portland, which has won awards (many of them, in fact). It was impressive!

boardwalk into a green forested area
entrance to the oregon zoo in portland
three sea otters
sea otters
two giraffes standing under trees
how’s the weather up there?

We saw bears, bald eagles, sea otters, seals, giraffes, bats, monkeys and apes (including chimpanzees) and much more. It was also our daughter’s first trip to any zoo. Overall, it was a great start to a long and epic trip!

Status update!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog – and if you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you are – then you may be asking yourself where in god’s name I’ve been for the past few months. What can I possibly have been doing that would justify this extended hiatus? Who do I think I am?!

I don’t have a single great explanation. I have several of them.

Back in February, I mentioned that my wife and I had our first baby, Ava. This alone was a life-altering event that has occupied most of my time ever since. The whole experience has been amazing, and we are really lucky to have had a healthy baby. Perhaps too healthy – she is better described by words like robust and zesty. A real zest for life. No idea who she gets that from.

baby on play mat looking curiously at camera
ava, 5 months old

Somehow, in addition to working full time and caring for a newborn, I also took a few classes at a local community college in Seattle. I had previously talked about taking a computer programming course last fall, and a chemistry prep class as well as a geology class dedicated to dinosaurs, both in winter quarter, from January through March of this year. I wrote a few brief posts related to topics from that class, such as asking which dinosaur had the longest neck, but overall that one was just for fun. My primary motivation for taking classes, though, has been to get some additional math and science courses under my belt, since I feel like I never really got the formal education in those areas that I should have, years ago in college. After finishing the chemistry prep course, the next logical one to take was general chemistry – so I took that in spring quarter, April through June. While this one was also pretty difficult, I’m proud to say I got an A in each class.

And then, a week after the chemistry class ended and with a 5 month old baby in tow, we moved across the country, driving about 1,200 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles.

We are only in LA for 12 months for my wife’s job – getting additional training – but as you can imagine, this move involved an extraordinary amount of planning and execution to pull off successfully. We had to find a new place to live in LA (without being able to fly and visit in person, due to the pandemic and the baby); find and secure child care in LA (again, from across the country); figure out what to do with our house in Seattle; hire movers; plan out a week-long drive down the west coast; and then actually pack up the entire house and move.

By now, you can probably see why I haven’t had a chance to continue updating the blog over the past few months.

That being said, all of that planning and execution related to the move is behind us, and we’re mostly unpacked and settled into our place in LA, ready to explore and enjoy the city. We only have a year, so we want to make the most of it. I am taking summer quarter off (in an academic sense, at least) so I can focus more on everything else mentioned above and start some other projects.

What this means for you is I’ll be cranking out additional blog posts on a regular basis. You can thank me later!

Meet the plesiosaur: a gigantic aquatic reptile

There’s a common misconception that any kind of large prehistoric animal is a dinosaur – from a t-rex to the flying pterodactyl to the woolly mammoth.

When I first heard this, I couldn’t believe it. Did people really believe that a woolly mammoth qualified as a dinosaur? Obviously a woolly mammoth was covered in thick fur (hence the name), which makes it a mammal, even if you knew nothing else about it. They just aren’t reptilian like dinosaurs.

But flying prehistoric reptiles (like pterosaurs) and swimming prehistoric reptiles (like plesiosaurs) – those were just different types of dinosaurs, right?

Wrong.

Until recently, I didn’t realize that plesiosaurs and pterosaurs are not considered dinosaurs. I had mistakenly lumped them all together. True, they were all reptiles and they lived during the same geological time period (the Mesozoic Era), but they were sufficiently different from an evolutionary and biological perspective that they aren’t categorized as dinosaurs at all.

long necked plesiosaur underwater
meet the plesiosaur

Plesiosaurs were a group of long-necked marine reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic Era, from the late Triassic period, through the entire Jurassic period, to the late Cretaceous period (roughly 225 million to 80 million years ago). Some, but not all, types of plesiosaurs continued to exist until the end of the Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago. This is approximately the same geologic time period as the dinosaurs.


While the name “dinosaur” means “terrible lizard,” the name “plesiosaur” means “close to lizard,” an appropriate name since they were admittedly similar in many ways to the dinosaurs. 

The world map looked extremely different hundreds of millions of years ago, but plesiosaurs were geographically distributed in many areas, throughout the Pacific Ocean and near what is now North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. 

Early in their history, plesiosaurs split into two different lineages – pliosauroids and plesiosauroids. The latter had a longer neck that was very flexible. Interestingly, later on, plesiosaurs increased dramatically in size (up to 43 feet or so) and the neck reached extreme lengths. with half the total body length consisting of the neck and head. And the jaws had an estimated biting force of around 33,000 psi, possibly the largest known bite force of any animal!

plesiosaur skeleton

There is even some evidence that plesiosaurs may have been warm blooded and gave birth to live young, rather than laying eggs. Of course, there is significant debate about whether some dinosaurs were similarly warm blooded, but that is a topic for another post…

Further reading:


Britannica

https://www.britannica.com/animal/plesiosaur


The Plesiosaur Directory

https://plesiosauria.com/


Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plesiosauria


ThoughtCohttps://www.thoughtco.com/plesiosaurus-1091520

Which dinosaur had the longest neck?

When most people imagine a dinosaur, they might initially think of a large, menacing tyrannosaurus rex, or the slow and lumbering stegosaurus with huge plates along its back, or the three-horned triceratops with its massive frill or crest above its neck. But one of the most frequently recognized types of dinosaurs is a sauropod.

As mentioned in my last post, all dinosaurs are generally divided into two categories: saurischia (“lizard hips”) and ornithischia (“bird hips”). Within saurischia, it’s further broken down into theropods (bipedal carnivores like t-rex) and sauropods.

Sauropods were plant-eating dinosaurs that walked on all four legs and had extremely long necks, with relatively small heads. They grew to colossal sizes and were the largest animals to have ever walked the earth. Technically blue whales are larger, but they live in the ocean and don’t have to deal with the constraints of gravity, so it’s apples and oranges in terms of a comparison. Some of the most well known sauropods are brontosaurus (now known as apatosaurus, though this is a heated debate among some paleontologists) and brachiosaurus.

dark rendering of long-necked dinosaurs
mamenchisaurs (artwork by cheungchungtat)

It’s true that a lot of sauropods had very long necks – it seems to be one of their defining features. But the long neck is intriguing, and it raises several questions. Why is the neck so long? Structurally speaking, how was this possible? And which dinosaur had the longest neck?


It’s always hard to say anything with total certainty about animals that went extinct more than 66 million years ago. I had never heard of the “Mamenchisaurus” until recently, but it seems to be a strong contender for dinosaur with the longest neck, and in any pictures (whether skeletal or depictions of what it probably looked like in real life) it’s startling. The Mamenchisaurus was approximately 60 feet in total length, and a good 30 feet of that was just the neck. Relative to its body size, this animal had the longest neck of any known dinosaur.

The Mamenchisaurus lived in what is now China (though of course the map looked very different back then) and seems to have lived during the Middle and Late Jurassic, and possibly in the Early Cretaceous.

long-necked dinosaur
how’s the weather up there?


At first, I thought that the purpose of the long neck would have been to reach really tall vegetation and trees, like modern giraffes. But it seems more likely that the dinosaur used its neck more horizontally to reach medium height or lower level vegetation, and the benefit in neck length was instead to sweep across much larger areas. This way, it didn’t need to move its body much (if at all) while feeding. No doubt this saved a lot of energy considering the colossal size and weight of the body!

Further reading:

Meet Mamenchisaurus, American Museum of Natural History


https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/sauropods-worlds-largest-dinosaurs/meet-mamenchisaurus


Mamenchisaurus, Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamenchisaurus


Mamenchisaurus, Natural History Museum, London, UK


https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/dino-directory/mamenchisaurus.html


Mamenchisaurus, Prehistoric Wildlife


http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/m/mamenchisaurus.html