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.

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