Earlier this month, I was able to make it to my first rocket launch in over a year. At first glance, this seems inexcusable for someone whose blog and other social media accounts are primarily dedicated to rockets and rocket launches. In my defense, the past year has been a whirlwind. We moved from Seattle to Los Angeles (with a 5 month old baby) and are getting ready to move out of Los Angeles (with a 17 month old baby). I completed two classes – linear algebra and environmental science – and we tried to see and do as much as possible, knowing that we had just one year to explore southern California. We made it to San Diego (twice!), Santa Barbara, Ojai, Big Bear, Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park, and lots of beaches, from Malibu and Santa Monica down through Crystal Cove and Laguna Beach, not to mention the countless things we did and places we ate within LA itself. (Griffith Observatory and California Science Center to name just two.)
That said, LDRS 40 – a national rocket launch – was being held just a few hours’ drive outside of LA. How could I not attend?
I left my rockets, motors, tools and equipment up in Seattle temporarily before we moved, so I didn’t bring anything to launch myself. But I wanted to take the opportunity to see other rocketeers and some spectacular launches, and to just meet up with old friends and chat.
Large Dangerous Rocket Ships (“LDRS”) is an annual rocket launch hosted by Tripoli Rocketry Association, a national organization, and the Rocketry Organization of California (“ROC”), a local club. LDRS held its 40th annual event in Lucerne Valley, California, on Lucerne Dry Lake Bed, which is very much a desert. The daily high temperatures were about 105 degrees F. Conditions were what you’d expect: very hot and very dry. There were also some strong winds which carried a lot of the dry dust and sand everywhere.
It was an awesome experience – my first LDRS annual event, and first large national rocket launch event that I’ve ever attended, and my first launch of any kind in over a year. All you needed were sunglasses and an oversized hat, plenty of sunscreen, a limitless supply of water bottles, plus an N95 if you wanted to breathe. Ideally, in retrospect, I should have just worn an astronaut suit for maximum protection but there’s always next year.
Besides, the intense sun and winds were no match for the enthusiasm of this group of people!
I recently took a class all about dinosaurs, and one topic was whether dinosaurs were cold-blooded, which has traditionally been the conventional view, or in fact warm-blooded. The evidence, it turns out, is mixed, and just learning about the different types of evidence is really interesting. One of the pieces of evidence listed stood out to me in particular: dinosaur blood pressure. I thought I would do a little research on this topic to find out more.
Basically, a warm-blooded (endothermic) metabolism requires high blood pressure to rapidly circulate the blood throughout the body. Endotherms have higher blood pressure than cold-blooded animals (ectotherms). So did dinosaurs have high or low blood pressure?
At first glance, this doesn’t seem particularly helpful. If we don’t know whether dinosaurs were cold or warm blooded, how would we know their blood pressure levels either? Fascinatingly, it is (somewhat) possible to answer this question!
Since one of the most critical functions of the heart is to pump blood to the brain, we can estimate dinosaur blood pressure based on the vertical distance between the dinosaur’s heart and brain. And we do have lots of fossils where we can measure this distance directly. Considering the extremely long necks of certain gigantic sauropods, this distance could be enormous. If we extrapolate blood pressures in dinosaurs from current animals, the pressures in sauropods would be so high that it is questionable how this was even possible without something rupturing or exploding.
However, the picture is further complicated by a separate but related debate about dinosaur posture. What did sauropods do with their enormously long necks? Did they keep them relatively low to the ground and horizontal when walking and feeding, or did they hold them much higher (closer to vertical) in order, for example, to reach higher vegetation on trees? The answer to this makes a huge difference when estimating blood pressure because it takes a much higher pressure to move blood up a vertical neck, against gravity, than sideways when the neck is kept low. The answer to this is we don’t know for sure, but there seems to be a lot of evidence in favor of the more vertical neck/ posture (from the structure of the bones in the neck), which leaves open the question of how exactly their bodies could pump blood with such high pressure to the brain.
One possibility is a gigantic heart to pump with more power, literally weighing several tons. This would probably be very inefficient, and the problem of such explosive high blood pressure would remain. Another alternative some have proposed are multiple smaller hearts in the neck to assist the primary heart. This isn’t physically impossible, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for this either. One other possibility would be using some sort of valves or muscle contractions in the neck, like living giraffes, to transport blood to the brain (although a sauropod neck is much, much longer than a giraffe’s neck).
Paleontologists like Robert Bakker in the 1970s and more recently Michael Habib argue something along these lines. Bakker suggested sauropods use neck muscle contractions to pump blood up the neck. Habib agrees and points to large neck bones called cervical ribs that are actually a very flexible form of bone, and can act as springs. This could have allowed a sauropod with a very long neck to move the blood without an impossibly high blood pressure.
This idea makes sense to me. These sauropod necks that were 30 or 40 feet long must have had extremely powerful muscles. From an evolutionary standpoint, why not co-opt these muscles into more than one function, and use them to assist the heart with pumping blood? Of course like many hypotheses and arguments with dinosaurs, this idea is also not without criticism.
There are other interesting related questions involving blood pressure that would never have occurred to me. For example, no matter what the mechanism to pump blood with such high force to the brain (whether a gigantic heart or assistance from neck muscles), when a sauropod did lower its head to the ground (e.g. to drink water), how did it prevent a huge rush of blood to its head? Modern day giraffes have evolved a web of little arteries that solves this problem, but it’s not clear whether dinosaurs had something similar.
There is a lot of speculation and unanswered questions about dinosaurs’ circulatory system. Unlike the skeleton, it didn’t fossilize and there’s no direct evidence of things like the size of the heart or the structure of arteries. But it’s an interesting area with vigorous debate because these were real problems that had to be addressed, and sauropods managed to address them one way or another!
How Long-Necked Dinosaurs Pumped Blood to Their Brains
Last summer, Katie and I were getting bit by mosquitoes, and we typically put this strong medical tape over the bite to relieve the itching. At the time, Katie said: why not sell this? WHY NOT INDEED?
Fast forward a few months and I had designed and manufactured a custom adhesive patch for bug bites, and filed a bunch of paperwork to create an LLC, get a unique product UPC/ bar code, and more fun stuff. The patch is an elastic fabric with a medical strength glue, and it effectively eliminates itching.
You can also give it as a gift to any of your friends and family who love hiking, nature, and the outdoors. Let them know they just got *itch slapped!
Also, the company has a serious philanthropic mission and donates 10 percent of all revenue to an organization that fights malaria: Nothing But Nets. So please help us by doing anything from the list below:
Los Angeles has plenty of sunny weather, and rain is pretty unusual. But recently, it was pouring rain, and we had taken a day off work. What to do? We took the opportunity to check out the local California Science Center! We had never been before, and it had a lot of great exhibits. I was primarily interested in the Air & Space exhibit, and the museum is also the permanent home of the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
The space exhibit is broken out into a few sections: air and aircraft; humans in space; the solar system and planets; and telescopes and stars. The “humans in space” part of the exhibit has some really impressive things on display, including an actual Apollo command module, a Gemini capsule, and a Mercury-Redstone capsule.
For those who are less familiar with the details, the US space program back in the 1950s and 60s involved the creation of NASA and several successively ambitious projects designed to accomplish specific goals or milestones:
Project Mercury. Beginning immediately after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit (Sputnik in 1957), Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program in the US and ran from 1958 to 1963. The goal was to put a man into orbit and, of course, return him safely. The program involved 20 spacecraft launches with no crew (some with an animal), and eventually it successfully launched humans into orbit.
Project Gemini. The purpose of Gemini (1961 to 1966) was to develop space travel techniques to support the ability to eventually land astronauts on the moon (which was ultimately done with Apollo). These techniques included things like extra-vehicular activity, rendezvous of spacecraft, and docking. The name Gemini comes from the fact that the spacecraft carried a two-person crew, named after the Gemini twins in Greek mythology.
Project Apollo. Running from 1968 to 1972, the goal of Apollo was to land the first astronauts on the moon. It involved a three person spacecraft and was originally conceived during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, but later dedicated to JFK’s goal of landing a man on the moon, and of course eventually achieved its goal with Apollo 11 in 1969.
The highlight of the museum (for me, at least) was the Endeavor exhibit. The US only produced a total of six space shuttles, which were in operation from the first flight in 1981 through the last flight in 2011: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. The first shuttle, Enterprise, was only used for testing purposes. Two of the six shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were lost in two disasters when they disintegrated during their missions, in 1986 and 2003, respectively. That means only four of the six shuttles are still in existence, and the California Science Center houses one of them. The Endeavor was gifted to the museum and, through seemingly herculean efforts, transported to southern California back in 2012.
It was pretty amazing to learn about the difficult journey to physically move the shuttle through the streets of Los Angeles, and to see one of the few remaining shuttles up close.
The space shuttle is currently on display in this building, but the museum is in the process of building another even larger building where the shuttle will sit vertically, attached to the booster tanks as if it were ready for launch. This will be the only place in the world where the shuttle will be displayed in this manner. I’m not sure when the exhibit will be completed, but it should be pretty impressive.
I didn’t grow up during the space race in the 1950s and 60s, but rather during the 1980s and 90s when the space shuttle program seemed like the future. Now, of course, it’s been retired and NASA is developing the Space Launch System, and private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others are building massive rockets to put humans into space (which SpaceX has already successfully done). But this exhibit really hit home for me; I was in awe at the experience of seeing one of the only space shuttles in existence. If you live in LA or are planning to visit, I’d definitely recommend a trip to the California Science Center.
New year’s day: seems like a good time for some updates.
To say I’ve been busy lately would be a dramatic understatement. Even aside from the pandemic and the general chaos it has created, 2021 has been a pretty crazy year for me. At this time 1 year ago, we were living in the Seattle area and our daughter hadn’t been born yet. Fast forward to today, and she is 11 months old, and we are living in Los Angeles (with another big cross country move to come in another few months).
During 2021 I can’t say I accomplished much in rocketry, but I did take several classes at local community colleges: a chemistry prep course; the full chemistry course with lab; a geology class about dinosaurs; and linear (matrix) algebra. In 2019, I took the three-part calculus series, and linear algebra was the first post-calculus math class I’ve ever taken. I’d like to eventually get an engineering degree and these are just math and science pre-requisites, but regardless of whether I ultimately get the degree, I just enjoy learning – and these are some tough classes that really force me to do some hard work and expand my mind.
Since arriving in Los Angeles about six months ago, we’ve also made an effort to get out and explore the local area – with the important caveats that this is taking place during a global pandemic and we have a baby. We’ve made it to San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ojai, and Big Bear Lake within a few hours’ drive of LA; several beaches, many hikes, and a few botanical gardens; and much more. Most recently we just visited the California Science Center, which has an awesome space exhibit and actually houses one of the (now retired) space shuttles. I’ll post more about this exhibit shortly!
Can you have property rights in space? Can an individual, or a private company, or a government, claim territory on the moon, or on Mars? What about asteroid mining?
The short answer is: there isn’t settled law on these questions. And nobody has actually attempted it yet, so the law is all theoretical. But given aerospace developments in recent years, the question is increasingly important. Blue Origin, SpaceX, and other private/ commercial space launch companies have publicly stated they intend to land humans on the moon or Mars, or mine asteroids for resources. Other countries’ governments are developing and launching large commercial rockets (e.g. China). Property rights in space may become very significant.
International law and treaties
One complicating but fundamental starting point is that different countries (i.e. states) have their own laws. There isn’t a single overarching legal framework, but rather just individual countries’ laws. Sometimes, multiple countries sign a mutually binding treaty and create an “international” law, but this is a fuzzy concept. Some might argue that there’s no such thing as international law, really, since there’s not a single international or world government. For that reason, it frequently may not be properly enforced. The United Nations is an example of this.
Furthermore, each country can choose to sign onto an international agreement or treaty, and not every country does – so some countries may not join the agreement, and can effectively do whatever they want.
That said, agreements and treaties among countries do exist, and are treated as binding with legal obligations. Below, I mention a few of the key treaties.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty
Back in 1967, when the United States and the Soviet Union had competing space programs but neither had yet landed a human on the moon, a treaty was entered into among both countries and the United Kingdom. Formally known as the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” it is generally shorthanded as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and it forms the basis for international space law. The treaty was entered into and became effective in 1967 with the US, USSR, and UK, but as of 2021, well over 100 countries are parties to the agreement (about 111 have signed and ratified it, while another 23 have signed but not yet ratified). The United States is one of these parties.
In general, this is an arms control or “non-armament” treaty, meaning that it basically prohibits countries from putting weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons) in space or establishing military bases on celestial bodies. Instead, it limits use of the moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only.
The treaty is actually fascinating and, in some respects, way ahead of its time. Key passages from Article I include:
The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.
Article I, sentence 1
Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
Article I, sentence 2
There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation in such investigation.
Article I, sentence 3
Section II discusses the principle of non-appropriation:
Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
Finally, worth highlighting here, section VI of the treaty discusses international responsibility:
State Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.
Article VI, sentence 1
The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.
Article VI, sentence 2
It’s not really clear whether an activity like asteroid mining would be permitted under this treaty. It states that the moon and other celestial bodies are not subject to appropriation, but it also says that they must be free for exploration and use.
The Moon Agreement
This agreement applies to the moon, but also to all other celestial bodies within the solar system (i.e., everything other than the earth), and it went into effect in 1984. What’s perhaps most important to note is that as of 2021, there are only 18 countries that are parties to the Moon Agreement (and another 4 that have signed it, but have not yet ratified). None of them are spacefaring countries capable of orbital flight. This means, of course, the United States is not a party.
Similar to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement states that the moon is not subject to any national appropriation. It says that the parties have the right to exploration and use of the moon. However, it goes further and says that neither the surface or the subsurface of the moon, or any of its natural resources, shall become property of any state, or any non-governmental organization, or any individual person. And placing any personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, etc. on the moon’s surface or beneath its surface does not create any right of ownership over the moon. Again, these provisions apply to all celestial bodies, as well as the moon itself, which would include Mars and asteroids. But it wouldn’t be binding on the US or any individuals or organizations within the US.
The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act
In the US, private space launch companies started to lobby Congress to pass a law clarifying that they would be able to mine or harvest resources in space, whether from the moon, other planets, or asteroids. As a result of these efforts, Congress passed this statute in 2015. In an obvious and eye-rolling attempt to reverse engineer the law’s name to arrive at the desired acronym, it is also known as the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (“SPACE”) Act. It expressly allows US citizens and companies to “engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources,” including water and minerals. The law states:
A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.
Section 51303, Asteroid resource and space resource rights
As you might suspect, some people have argued that this US law violates the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Right now, this is all very theoretical since nobody is actually mining or exploiting resources from space (yet). Which leads me to…
The Artemis Accords
In 2020, the Artemis Accords were signed as an international agreement between countries participating in the Artemis Program, which is the US-led program to return humans to the moon. About a dozen countries, including the US, have signed this agreement. The Artemis Accords state, in relevant part:
The Signatories emphasize that the extraction and utilization of space resources, including any recovery from the surface or subsurface of the Moon, Mars, comets, or asteroids, should be executed in a manner that complies with the Outer Space Treaty and in support of safe and sustainable space activities. The Signatories affirm that the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, and that contracts and other legal instruments relating to space resources should be consistent with that Treaty.
Section 10 – Space Resources
This is an attempt to bridge the gap between the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (which prohibits appropriation of the moon and other celestial bodies) and the 2015 US SPACE Act (which allows extraction of resources), by stating that “extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation” under the Outer Space Treaty.
The 2015 US SPACE Act and the US-backed Artemis Accords have drawn some criticism for being too US-centric and protecting American interests in space. The bold assertion that extraction of space resources does not constitute appropriation (a violation of the Outer Space Treaty) is an interpretation of the treaty, but not necessarily the only or best interpretation. And importantly, the Accords are not really considered a “treaty” because they did not go through the United Nations’ treaty process – rather, they are just a series of bilateral agreements between the US and various other countries. In other words, they may or may not have any value in terms of being an official interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty.
In conclusion – the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the primary international law on point here, and it is not clear whether it allows or prohibits extracting resources in space. More recent and more specific US law says that it is allowed – but this could be challenged as a violation of the international treaty.
Assuming for practical purposes that mining or extracting resources from the moon or asteroids were attempted by an individual or private company in the US, additional questions would arise. Would you be required to obtain a permit or license from the US government? If so, which agency or department would grant the license – the FAA, which generally regulates air and space flight? The Department of Commerce, which regulates economic activity? Another agency?
None of this is clear today. But these are just some of the important questions that will need to be answered as companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin expand their space launch programs over the next few years.
Have you ever wondered what the rules are when it comes to rocket launches? A rocket is basically a bomb with a hole poked in one end, and they sometimes fail catastrophically. Are there any laws governing this activity, or is it a total free for all? Aside from exploding on the pad, what if your rocket (or parts of it) land on someone else’s private property or injured someone? Do you need some sort of clearance from the government to launch a rocket?
Volumes of books could be written with answers to these questions, but I will just highlight a couple of important federal laws and regulations that govern large commercial rockets and space launch activity in the United States. My background is in law, so it’s only natural for me to pay extra attention to the laws and regulations for space flight.
International Traffic in Arms Regulations
One fundamental set of requirements is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR”). These regulations restrict the export of defense or military related technologies, as a part of US national security. Here’s a quick rundown:
What type of technologies are covered under ITAR? Defense-related articles and services, which are on the United States Munitions List (“USML”). This is basically a list of services or technologies that have been designated as defense or space related by the US government.
What’s a defense-related “article”? An article is basically either a physical item or technical data.
What does it mean if a technology is on the USML and subject to ITAR? In order to export one of these technologies (i.e., to give it to a non-US person), you would have to get an export license from the US State Department. In other words, in general, these technologies can only be shared with another US person, unless you get special approval from the State Department.
What are the categories in the United States Munitions List?
Firearms, Close Assault Weapons and Combat Shotguns
Explosives and Energetic Materials, Propellants, Incendiary Agents, and Their Constituents
Surface Vessels of War and Special Naval Equipment
Aircraft and Related Articles
Military Training Equipment and Training
Personal Protective Equipment
Fire Control, Range Finder, Optical and Guidance and Control Equipment, Night vision goggles
Materials and Miscellaneous Articles
Toxicological Agents, Including Chemical Agents, Biological Agents, and Associated Equipment
Spacecraft and Related Articles
Nuclear Weapons Related Articles
Classified Articles, Technical Data, and Defense Services Not Otherwise Enumerated
Directed Energy Weapons
Gas Turbine Engines and Associated Equipment
Submersible Vessels and Related Articles
Articles, Technical Data, and Defense Services Not Otherwise Enumerated
Who legally enforces ITAR? The US Department of State Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (“DDTC”) interprets and enforces ITAR.
Who physically enforces ITAR? The US Department of Homeland Security enforces ITAR. Specifically, Special Agents under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), along with US Customs and Border Protection Officers physically inspect imports and exports at US border crossings and international airports.
Registration. All manufacturers (as well as exporters and brokers) of defense articles are required to register with the State Department.
Satellites and their components. Prior to 1992, satellites components were considered munitions, subject to ITAR and enforcement by the State Department. However, during the mid-1990s, the US Commerce Department took on responsibility for regulating communications satellites, under the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”).
Arms Export Control Act
Another major related law is the Arms Export Control Act (“AECA”). This law gives the US President the authority to control imports and exports of defense articles. It requires foreign governments receiving any weapons from the US to use them only in self-defense. The law also places certain restrictions on US arms traders and manufacturers. If they sell sensitive technologies to “trusted” parties, thorough documentation is required, and they are completely prohibited from selling those technologies to certain other parties.
Export Administration Regulations
One other significant set of requirements governing rocket launches and space activity is the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”). These regulations govern whether something may be exported from the US, and whether it may be transferred from one person to another in a foreign country. The US Commerce Department administers these regulations.
Similar to the US Munitions List under ITAR, the EAR has its own Commerce Control List (CCL). This is a list of items that may have military use and not just commercial use. The vast majority of what’s covered under the EAR are just commercial exports and are not on the CCL.
What counts as an “export”? An export could be any of the following:
1.An actual shipment of an item outside the US;
2. Releasing or transferring technology (including source code) to a foreign person within the US;
3. Transferring registration, control, or ownership of spacecraft, in certain circumstances.
General Prohibitions. The EAR contains a list of 10 General Prohibitions. I won’t list them all in excruciating detail here, but basically there are certain things that are prohibited when it comes to exports, and they’re all more or less common sense. Unless you have a license or an exception applies, you cannot export anything to certain countries (e.g. North Korea, Iran, Syria, etc.), or to an end-user (or end-use) that is specifically prohibited. You can’t export things that are on the CCL (i.e., that have potential military use). You cannot perform certain activities that are related to nuclear explosives, missiles, chemical weapons, or biological weapons. You also cannot export things that even pass through a list of certain countries (e.g. North Korea again, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and about a dozen others) without a license. Finally – you cannot violate the terms or conditions of a license, license exception, or any order issued under the EAR, and you also cannot export, transfer, forward, or do anything else with an item subject to the EAR with the knowledge that a violation of the EAR would occur.
These are just a few of the laws or regulations that govern the aerospace industry and space activities, but they are three of the biggest and most important to know about.
By this point, I had decided that I wanted to build – and ultimately launch – a high power rocket. I had done some preliminary research to make sure I wasn’t crazy, that this was actually doable, and that I had some rough idea of where to start. Now what?
I broke the goal down into the steps necessary to get there. If a step didn’t seem manageable, I broke it down further into smaller steps until it was. Here are what the steps looked like for me:
Start simple. Buy a small low power rocket kit, build it, and launch. I ended up building two: the Crossfire and Amazon, both Estes brand rockets.
Next, buy a larger kit (low to medium power), build it and launch it. For this, I built the Estes “Mean Machine,” a tall thin rocket that can fly on slightly more powerful motors.
Learn more about the electronics in a rocket, like how a flight computer works.
Get an amateur (“ham”) radio license. Of course, you can absolutely build and launch a rocket that has no onboard electronics. The rocket has everything needed to go up, successfully deploy a parachute, and return safely to the ground without anything fancy. But there are a lot of cool electronics you can add, and some even allow live data transferred through radio waves (which is called telemetry). The more I learned about this, I realized that in order to legally use a flight computer with telemetry, I needed to have a basic ham radio license.
Build a workshop. We have a small house, and I had been using our family kitchen table for my rocket projects, but I really needed a dedicated space for tools and construction. I decided to take our old garden shed in the back yard and renovate it into a usable workshop space.
Finally, build a larger high power rocket with electronics bay – and launch it.
You can see how this plan is supposed to work. I couldn’t necessarily just jump to the last bullet and skip everything else. I mean, I could, in the same sense that I could theoretically just decide to run a marathon with zero training or running experience. It’s not a good idea and isn’t going to end well.
I’d never built a rocket before, even a small one, and it made much more sense to start with something easier and gain a better understanding of what I’m doing. A lot of things could easily go wrong, especially in a hobby involving explosives.
All of these bullet points or steps could be broken down further into smaller steps. Even with the very first bullet above – build a small, low power kit – I had to choose one and actually build it. The construction process didn’t take a terribly long time, but it involved a lot of cutting and sanding and gluing, and later, priming and painting. It also required that I understand what else is needed in order to launch: rocket kits don’t come with motors, which must be bought separately, and they don’t come with electronic launch controllers or launch pads, which also must be bought separately. I had to figure out how to install the motor, set up the launch pad and connect the controller to ignite the motor, and of course, ensure I understood the rules for a safe launch. And I had to figure out where exactly I could launch – something that turned out to be surprisingly difficult. You need a big, open area without any trees nearby – because the rocket will very likely descend under parachute into a tree, forever out of your reach. In a city or urban area, this can be hard to find.
Other steps required even more work and could be broken down further. Transforming the shed in our back yard into a workshop required putting in windows (where it had none), replacing the door, cleaning out a bunch of junk and hauling it away, installing a butcher block workbench, and running wires out to the shed from the main electrical panel in the house for electricity (outlets and lights).
How to create your plan
All right – so you’ve given it some thought, come up with a specific goal, and done a bit of research. The toughest part is now out of the way. Congrats!
Creating a plan doesn’t have to be difficult, and in fact it can be motivating. You may be overwhelmed if you think about your overall goal – where do you even start? But if you can break it down into smaller steps, each of them will feel much more achievable.
Let’s use the example mentioned earlier: say you’ve always wanted to run a marathon, and you have absolutely no running experience. You might feel like the goal is so far out of reach that it’s hopeless. But there’s no reason to be so pessimistic. Instead, you could create a plan where you start out by going for very short jogs, once or twice a day. Start as small as needed. Even if you’re totally winded or doubled over with a painful cramp after just a couple of blocks, that’s fine – you just want to start with something manageable and keep repeating it, consistently. After a few days your muscles will start to get used to this, and you won’t feel as sore or as winded. You can gradually expand to run longer distances.
Your plan would of course depend on your starting skill level: have you never run before in your life? Or have you previously completed a dozen 5k runs? It would also depend on how much time you have before your marathon: is it six months from today, or is it next week?
Realistically, if you had six months to train, you could put together a 26 week plan. In the first week, you might run just a quarter mile – a few blocks – once a day. In week 2, you could increase the distance to a half-mile every day, and by week 4, perhaps one mile each day. By the end of the second month, you could be running a 3 miles (a 5k) every day, and so on. It could be this simple – increasing distance gradually – or your plan could incorporate other aspects of training, like different types of exercise, a change in diet, having a buddy keep you accountable, etc.
More generally, your plan just depends on two variables: (1) the distance or gap between where you are today and where you want to be (your end goal), and (2) the passage of time. All else being equal, the larger the gap – the more ambitious the goal – the more time you will likely need to achieve it. But it’s completely achievable.
As I mentioned in the last post, it is impossible to accurately convey just how little I knew about the whole subject of rockets when I first started thinking about building and launching one. I was completely in the dark, waving my arms around wildly in front of me and unable to see anything. Incidentally, this is my typical research technique.
I initially turned to my good friends Google, Reddit, and Quora. As you might guess, this led me down all sorts of rabbit holes. But this is exactly what you want at this early stage.
I discovered, for example, that there are two large organizations in the US dedicated to amateur rocketry: the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) and Tripoli. Both have been around for decades, and both have hundreds of local clubs spread out across the country – clubs full of other people who share similar interests in rocketry and that periodically host rocket launch events.
I found one local Seattle club, Washington Aerospace Club (WAC), and joined right away. I attended a couple of meetings in person (just before the pandemic hit) and was fascinated that there was a local group of like-minded people who were just really into building and launching rockets. I made some new friends and also found a couple much more experienced people as mentors. More on that below, but finding a mentor is highly recommended.
There’s a lot to learn about building a rocket, whether small or large. There’s also a lot to learn about launching a rocket. Construction techniques, types of rockets, motor sizes and classes, recovery methods, launch pads and towers – the list goes on without end, and that’s without getting into the more sophisticated systems and electronics. I’ve written extensively in previous articles on my blog about many of the basics in rocketry for those who are interested.
But the point is that I needed a crash course, a rockets 101, and I had to do some serious information gathering to even have a bare minimum of competence in setting a goal.
How to do your own research
To take another potential non-rocketry goal at random: let’s say I’ve always wanted to climb Mt. Everest, or some other large and ominous mountain. I know absolutely nothing about this, so where would I start?
I know my end goal in this scenario – scale the mountain and get to the summit, preferably alive. That’s pretty clear, specific, and measurable. But how exactly do I get there, literally or figuratively?
I don’t know enough to even come up with a reasonable plan at this stage. I’d need to do some research, which would start out by brainstorming and asking logical questions: where does a person start (physically) when beginning the climb? Some sort of base camp? Is this something you can do alone, or do people generally hire a professional guide and/or go in a group with others? What kind of clothing and equipment do I need? How long does something like this take – days, weeks, months? Do you have to train ahead of time? What dangers do I need to be aware of? The list of questions goes on.
Or let’s take a less lofty goal, but one that to many people is much more important: passing a big exam you have coming up in the future. Maybe it’s your final exam in a class, or maybe it’s a one-time licensing exam for your career. You know the goal here: get a passing score, or get as high a score as possible. That’s specific and measurable, and almost entirely within your control. But how to do it?
This might not appear as extreme as scaling Mt. Everest, but it can still be pretty stressful and demanding, depending on the subject and the exam, and on what kind of test-taker you are. You wouldn’t be starting out totally in the dark – at the very least, you know that you need to study a lot, and you probably know how to study relatively well.
But even in this scenario, you would benefit from doing some research. We can all stand to improve our study habits, and there are lots of tips and tricks and “hacks” you could use to help. For a really big test, where you will need to devote countless hours to studying, it might be worth looking into ways to boost your studying and use your time more efficiently. Maybe flashcards would help you with memorization, or maybe a buddy will keep you accountable to ensure you’re not slacking.
As mentioned earlier, a mentor can be very helpful as well. It may not be strictly required or worthwhile depending on the particular goal – for example, you probably don’t need a mentor to pass a test, even a very big and difficult one. But if you were planning to scale Mt. Everest, or even run a marathon, a mentor could really come in handy. Receiving the benefits of advice and guidance from someone who has real life experience in your field is absolutely invaluable.
So go ahead – spend a few hours on Google or Wikipedia, get involved in a local organization or club, find a mentor, and do some old fashioned research. And then you’ll be ready for step 3: creating your plan.
A few years ago, I was daydreaming, and this question occurred to me. I quickly realized I had no idea what the answer was. It also raised dozens of related questions: am I capable of doing this by myself? Do you need some sort of government approval? What are the rules? Are there limits on how big the rocket could be? Could I put something into orbit? What if my rocket blew up, or came crashing down onto someone else? Putting aside any potential comedic value, this could create some big liability for me.
Let me step back for just a moment. I’ve always been interested everything related to space, astronomy, or rockets. As a kid, I read lots of science fiction books on space travel. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov was (is, still) my favorite book series of all time. Fast forward a few years, and as an adult, I watch with fascination every time that Elon Musk makes an announcement or SpaceX lands one of its rockets vertically, in something that looks like it is straight out of sci-fi. But I’m not actually a rocket scientist. I never considered building a rocket myself. I didn’t even know it was possible to build one, unless you were an enormous government agency like NASA, or a handful of large private corporations – Blue Origin, SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Astra, or other similar large companies. It sounds… complicated.
Now, for the first time, I started thinking about it. Maybe I could build my own rocket. Why not? What the hell?
Of course, I need to stress just how little I knew at the time. To be fair, I should also stress just how little I know even now, but astoundingly, it was even less then. I was totally in the dark. I didn’t know there were local clubs all across the United States where amateurs built and launched small rockets as a hobby. I didn’t know that some people took that hobby to much greater extremes and built relatively sophisticated large high-powered rockets. I didn’t know the rocket body and rocket motor were two completely different things, or what obstacles would be involved in building one. I didn’t know that launching a small low power rocket to 1,000 ft was something that even a child could do, whereas hitting 100,000 ft was a remarkable achievement that generally takes a whole team of very smart and very experienced experts in the field – and very few people (or groups) have ever achieved it.
Suffice it to say, if I listed everything that I didn’t know when I first started, I would never finish writing this article.
But I was curious, and I started looking into it. Setting and fine-tuning the goal was an iterative process. I had to do some basic research and find out more, only to go back and tweak the goal. Putting something into orbit is pretty unrealistic, for a lone individual doing this in their spare time. But building and launching a “high power rocket” (which is defined a certain way, based on the size of its motor) was attainable, at least after some smaller rockets and ample practice.
I ordered a small, low power rocket kit and started putting it together. I realized I really enjoy the process of building, and learning more about different rocket parts and what functions they perform. The longer term goal was to build a high power rocket, but I had to start somewhere as I’d never done this before.
How to set your goal
You are not me, of course, and chances are, you don’t plan to build a rocket yourself. Perhaps you don’t want to blow yourself up, or perhaps you’re just not interested in rockets. No matter. (Hats off to you for reading this anyway on a blog primarily dedicated to rockets.)
What’s important here is coming up with your own goal. This is easier said than done. You know what you’re interested in, or passionate about, and you generally can’t go wrong spending your time doing something enjoyable. But a goal needs to be narrower, more targeted – something where you know when you’ve achieved it, where you can cross it off a list (figuratively or metaphorically) and say yes – I did it. In other words, it needs to be specific and measurable.
It also needs to be largely within your control. True, nothing is ever 100 percent within your control. Life has plenty of external circumstances and obstacles that can be thrown in your path. A global pandemic might occur, for example, or you might be hit with a stray high power rocket (don’t look at me). But you don’t want to choose a goal that is largely outside of your control, as a starting point, no matter what you do. That’s a sure path to frustration and disappointment – and wouldn’t be particularly satisfying even if you happened to achieve it, by chance.
Consider the time period involved as well. There’s no magic number as a minimum or maximum, but you probably don’t need to go through a lot of planning to achieve a relatively simple goal that can easily be done in an hour. At the other extreme, you don’t necessarily want a goal that takes decades and ultimately consumes the rest of your life. In that case, you’d be better off breaking it into several smaller goals, with more reasonable timeframes.
You may not be starting out as hopelessly naive as I did. But once you decide to set a specific goal, you will likely need to go through a similarly iterative process, learning more and then revising the goal accordingly.