Why I’m taking math classes

This post requires a bit of explanation and backstory.

math on blackboard
glorious math

When I was much younger, I was pretty good at math, and I liked it. I’m talking about very basic math, like in elementary school and junior high. Basic arithmetic, pre-algebra and algebra. Starting in third grade, and every year from grades three through eight, I represented our school at the statewide junior “math olympics.” I was also always drawn to space and astronomy. As I got closer to finishing high school and was busy applying to colleges, I decided that I’d choose a school based on its engineering program.

When I first started undergrad, my intended major was aerospace engineering. For a variety of reasons, though, I struggled with the necessary math and science classes – calculus, chemistry, physics. And to make a very long story short, I ended up switching majors to political science, and went on to law school afterwards, getting both an JD and MBA. I’m also very interested in history, and politics, and law, and public policy, which is why this path appealed to me.

That’s a successful outcome, though, right? Well, it depends on your perspective.

I enjoy what I do; it’s interesting and it’s intellectually challenging and satisfying. But I finished law school a decade ago, and for undergrad it’s been even longer than that. I’ve always felt that I never got the formal basic education in math or science, and I certainly never completed the program in aerospace engineering.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I will ever get the engineering degree. I don’t know that I will ever become an engineer. I suppose I could go back to school full time, or I could continue to work and take classes part time. But either way, I’ve felt like this basic math and science knowledge is lacking, and I decided that I should take a few classes to help complete my education.

And so, I did.

I started taking evening classes last year, in January 2019, jumping back into things with calculus I at a local community college. And it turns out, I still like math.

I’ll follow this post with another soon, detailing my lurid experiences with derivatives and integrals – in case you were hoping for more juicy mathematics.

L3: a story of hubris

At the beginning of 2020, before we collectively realized that COVID-19 would completely upend everything we know and love and that this year would be written off as a total disaster, I had set a couple of goals in a naive attempt to start the year off right.

picture of me looking wistfully into the sky, with large pine trees in background
overconfidence at its finest

Society might be crumbling, but looking back on the first quarter of 2020, I seem to have held up my end pretty well. My goals were to build my first high power rocket and electronics bay, and to transform my backyard shed into a workshop, primary for rockets and related projects. And I set an ambitious schedule of getting certified at not only L1 and L2 (realistically, this would already be fairly challenging) but also L3, the highest rocketry certification and something significantly more daunting, even for a seasoned pro (aka, not me). How has my progress stacked up so far, as of early April?

Well, I did build my first high power rocket, the HyperLOC 835, and I completed the e-bay. After I got my hands on some black powder, I conducted some ground testing. The rocket and e-bay can be used for both L1 and L2 certification, once society returns to some degree of normalcy and launch events are held again. I’ve studied for the written exam which is also required for L2. I have no doubt that I’ll get the L1/L2 certifications in the coming months. Piece of cake.

Plus, the workshop is nearly finished and I’d modestly deem that a spectacular success (although all of the electrical work was a joint effort with my friend Darrin, and by joint effort, I mean any success was entirely due to his expertise and generosity). The workshop bodes well for all future rocket construction, too.

But L3 certification is another story.

I started looking more closely at the NAR criteria for L3 certification. Objectively, and superficially, the criteria are similar to L1 and L2: build and successfully fly (including recovery) a rocket with a motor in a certain class (for L3, the motor must be classified as an M, N, or O). In addition, the L3 cert requires:

  • you must already be L2 certified;
  • you must have a member of the NAR L3 certification committee (“L3CC”) as your official advisor;
  • you must submit an L3 rocket design to the advisor for approval before beginning;
  • you must very thoroughly and comprehensively document every construction step along the way.

The rocket itself must also be built to certain specifications. For example:

  • each parachute event must be initiated by redundant control systems;
  • the rocket must have a safe rate of descent (20 ft/ sec is desirable);
  • you must be able to externally disarm all pyrotechnic devices on board the rocket, and so on.

However, what I didn’t realize – foolishly, in retrospect – was that it might not be a great idea to dive into the L3 rocket immediately after getting certified as an L2. Aside from the fact that the L3CC advisor might simply require additional experience before allowing you to proceed with an L3 project, more experience is clearly helpful. Rockets can be built in a large variety of sizes, and from a large number of different materials, from cardboard to fiberglass to aluminum, and more. They can be single-stage or multi-stage. They can involve different components and electronics. And there’s a lot to be said for a broad range of experience, including failures (which are plentiful, and which present excellent learning opportunities).

Let me be clear. I still fully intend to get the L3 certification as soon as possible. I’ve heard many people, whether they already have the certification or just intend to get it at some point in the future, talk about deliberately waiting years and emphasize that there’s no rush. This certification is a goal of mine, and I want to get it sooner rather than later. But at the same time, I fully appreciate the need for additional experience, something for which there is just no substitute. So I will build more and fly more, fail more and succeed more – so that when it comes time to embark on the L3 journey, I will be unquestionably ready.

I suppose it might be more accurate to say not that I was overconfident (perhaps), but rather than I was merely under-informed when initially setting the goal. I’ll go with that.

How to build a rocket workshop (part 9: tropical storm)

Since we had already done all the work involved in running copper wire and conduit outside to bring electricity to the shed, we figured we might as well run some cat 5 (ethernet) cable out there, too, for a wired ethernet connection. I mean, we’d already dug the trench – so why not? An excellent yet rhetorical question.

And as long as we’re running one cat 5 cable, might as well run two. Right?

white door on blue exterior wall, with grey pvc conduit above and to the right of the door
double the conduit

In view of the larger project of transforming the shed into a workshop, I have to concede that this step was really more along the lines of “what the hell” than anything else. I can’t say it was absolutely necessary. In fact, one might argue it was totally unnecessary. I can’t say that I have any immediate plans to use a wired internet connection out there. The wifi signal from the house certainly reaches the shed, if I needed it. I cannot imagine why I would need a wired connection.

And yet… we already dug the trench, which is the type of work that I’d never want to do again. It may be totally unforeseeable now, but in the unlikely event I suddenly need a wired internet connection in the workshop, it seems worthwhile to invest in just a small amount of extra time and effort now, instead of undertaking another huge (and avoidable) project later.

And to be honest, compared to running electricity out there, this was much easier.

open metal junction box with cat-5 cable and ethernet jacks
labeling the jacks for future reference

The PVC conduit (3/4″ this time, easily able to hold two ethernet cables) was laid in the trench about 8 inches above the other 1″ conduit with the electrical wires, still about 10 inches below ground level. Next to the house, the conduit runs up vertically along the wall and then over a door and off to the side, right next to the 1″ conduit. I’ll paint them both blue to match the house, eventually, as well. At that end of the conduit, we ran the ethernet cable through the floor and wall of the house, and installed a 4-jack outlet inside, next to the modem/router.

On the other end of the trench, the conduit came up inside the shed to a single junction box, pictured here. It was basically the same process as the electrical wiring, just much simpler inside the shed with a single piece of conduit and single box.

I labeled the jacks and ethernet cable on both ends for future reference and then slapped a metal box cover and 2-jack wall plate on top. Tested both jacks and they are perfectly functional. Success! I may not know why I did this, but I know that the objective was achieved.

two finished ethernet jacks with wall plate cover
ready to use

This means the wiring is complete and I’ve entered a new phase of this project: beautification. Basically, time to clean things up. Outside, there’s an enormous mountain of dirt and rocks that needs to go back into a deep trench and cover up the conduit. I also need to buy a few (hundred) bags of mulch to cover the bare soil, and make the building’s external appearance look at least marginally more presentable (not dissimilar to goals related to my own appearance).

Inside the shop, there’s some general cleanup to do and a few pieces to put back in place. I also need to spend a little time planning the design for the layout, and where tools and equipment should go. It may only be a small 10×10 ft space, but all the more reason that the layout matters: space is at a premium.

I’ll have a few more pictures and a final update once it’s complete. It’ll be ready for building rockets just in time for spring – a.k.a. rocket-building season.

Next rocket: Darkstar Extreme

Winter is not a popular time for high power rocket launches. Few clubs actually hold major launch events in the winter months – and the rare brave souls who do are nevertheless subject to the weather. I did find a local club (about a 4 hour drive from Seattle) that has a standing FAA waiver to launch one day each month, but the weather hasn’t been cooperating and so it was cancelled in December, January, February, and March.

Fortunately, spring is here, and clubs start holding many more launches in the coming months, as the weather steadily improves. Unfortunately… COVID-19 hit, and everything is cancelled until further notice. So April is out, and probably May as well. Everyone is at home, with shelter in place and lockdown orders in effect.

On the bright side, it’s a great time to start construction on my next rocket. My most recent project, the HyperLOC 835, has a 4″ diameter body, with a 54mm motor mount. The body is made from (very durable) cardboard and the nosecone is plastic. It’s a great rocket and I’m looking forward to launching it on several different motors, and with a flight computer and electronics bay capable of dual deployment.

My next rocket, though, will be the Wildman Rocketry “Darkstar Extreme.” It also has a 4″ rocket body, but with a 75mm motor mount that can fit more powerful motors, potentially up to an M. (As an aside, an N or O motor only comes in the 98mm variety and would require an even larger diameter motor mount.) The rocket body is made from fiberglass, and the nosecone is fiberglass as well with an aluminum tip.

rocksim design file of the darkstar extreme rocket
the darkstar extreme, in sexy and exciting two-dimensional glory

Above is the design file for the Darkstar Extreme, from Rocksim, a rocket design and simulation program.

And here’s the description from the manufacturer, Wildman Rocketry:

Leave it to Wildman to push the Darkstar to the Max with this radical upgrade. No Mildmen allowed!
This beast is ready to rock on any motor you can stuff in it!”

Can’t go wrong with that. Time to take full advantage of the quarantine.