How I decided on my L3 project in high power rocketry

Once I completed my level 2 certification, I had been spending a lot of time thinking about what, exactly, I should build for my level 3 project. And more generally, how should I approach it?

Cardboard or fiberglass?

I’ve built both cardboard and fiberglass rockets, and each has advantages depending on what you’re trying to achieve. I had initially assumed any L3 project would need to be fiberglass, and I’d been looking at some very large and very heavy rockets.

Fiberglass is more durable than cardboard, and is the strongest building material aside from metal. It won’t change size based on fluctuations in temperature, and it won’t swell up or get ruined if wet. This is particularly important since the rocket parts need to slide over each other using couplers. But the primary drawback of fiberglass is that it’s really heavy.

Cardboard (especially when properly reinforced with epoxy) is still durable but more lightweight, and that is a key characteristic when you are trying to defy gravity and launch something into the air. A cardboard rocket will go a lot higher than a fiberglass rocket on the same motor.

While agonizing over this fundamental choice, a solution appeared, from out of nowhere.

Deus ex machina

I had previously met and worked with Scott Binder, the owner of Scott Binder Rocketry (“SBR”), creator of the Fusion Rocket, as well as high power rocket motors and accessories. Scott’s shop is located in Walla Walla, Washington. His flagship rocket is the Fusion, but he’s recently been developing a new, larger version of the Fusion that is specifically for L3 certification – and long story short, I agreed to do some beta testing on this rocket.

white rocket with red and black design
L3 Fusion finished design

In addition to building the rocket and using it for my L3 cert, I am going to create a video tutorial with Scott for the construction of this rocket, from start to finish. I’ll link to that as soon as it’s ready.

L3 Fusion

The L3 Fusion itself is roughly 90 inches in length and a 5.5 inch diameter. With a 75mm motor mount tube, it’s capable of flying an M motor, and I plan to fly it on an Aerotech M1297 for the cert flight. The great part about cardboard is that this rocket only weighs about 22 lbs fully loaded, and it should come close to 10,000 ft. at apogee on the M1297.

L3 Fusion rendering in Open Rocket

The electronics bay will have two RRC3 altimeters, each powered by a 9V battery, and will use omni-directional black powder charges for separation and deployment of the parachutes during flight. The drogue chute is 24 inches and the main chute is 84 in. Descent should be less than 20 feet per second under the main chute.

There are more details forthcoming, but right now I’m excited to dive into this L3 project! I need to begin putting together a comprehensive document describing the rocket, with a lot of technical information. Later, once I begin building, I’ll include a lot of detail about the construction process and materials, with plenty of photos documenting the build step by step. And much later, once it’s complete, the most exciting part: flight!

More to come soon!

Revisiting my 2020 rocketry goals

This has been quite a year. I don’t mean for the world – yes, Australia was on fire, a global pandemic struck and is still ravaging the US, the economy is in free fall, there’s no end in sight, etc. That’s all true. But I mean for me personally. I set some goals back in January for 2020 and I’m crushing them. Like this:

black and white photo of sledgehammer breaking glass
to be fair, it is not that difficult to break through glass

I intended to write this post at the beginning of July, exactly halfway through the year, but things have been busy and time got away from me. I think it’s good to set goals at the beginning of a new year, but it’s just as important to pause a few times to seriously assess progress – or obstacles to progress – and sometimes, to revisit the goals when things change dramatically.

Clearly, a lot changed during this past year. Whatever your goals were at the outset of 2020, the world looked very different on January 1 from how it looks today, in August. Some goals have become literally impossible to achieve, due to external circumstances. Others are still achievable but have become significantly more difficult.

I wrote a post assessing my progress toward my own previously published goals for the year after the first quarter ended, in early April. In short, due to a scarcity of launch opportunities in the winter, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, I wasn’t able to launch anything or get any certifications in high power rocketry (“HPR”). But on the plus side, I transformed my backyard shed into a practical workshop (for rocketry), got a ham radio license so I could use a flight computer in a rocket with telemetry, and did some other cool stuff.

More recently, during the second quarter of the year, I did finally get the chance to fly a few rockets, which was amazing. I got my level 1 and also level 2 certifications in HPR, scoring some nifty badges and checking some major goals off my list. I also got a few additional post-L2 flights for more dual deploy experience.

My original goals for 2020 had also included getting my level 3 certification in HPR, the highest level offered by the National Association of Rocketry (“NAR”). In retrospect, this was pretty ambitious, even in a normal year. I had never launched even a small model rocket before last fall, and in less than a year I was planning to jump (plunge?) into high power stuff, getting multiple certifications.

And L3 in particular is significantly more difficult. True, it’s ultimately just building a larger rocket capable of flying on a more powerful motor (specifically an M, N, or O class motor). But it’s also a much more elaborate process.

NAR has a national L3 Certification Committee; generally two individuals per state are on this committee. You have to contact them and get one to serve as your advisor, and you need to find a second L3 individual as an advisor as well. You have to submit an L3 certification package and application, describing the rocket you intend to build in detail. As you build it, you have to thoroughly document everything you’re doing with plenty of photos and descriptions. Your advisors can question you and can perform on-site inspections of the rocket at any point in time. The rocket itself has to meet certain requirements, such as having fully redundant recovery systems. And of course, once it’s complete, you have to fly it with your advisors present as witnesses, including a successful recovery of the rocket.

That being said, it’s only August, and 2020 is not done yet. Rather, I should say that I’m not done with 2020 yet. I still have goals to achieve, and one of them is my L3 certification. The odds are against me, but I have a plan, and it might yet be possible to do this before the year is up.

Stay tuned for some exciting updates!

Launching rockets in the Oregon desert

Recently, I was able to make the journey out to Brothers, OR to attend my first launch hosted by the Oregon Rocketry Club (“OROC”). From where I live in the Seattle area, this is about a 6.5 hour drive each way, so I stayed overnight in Portland. I’ve done some pretty long day trips, but trying to drive to this launch and back in a single day would just be pushing myself a bit too far.

desert landscape filled with sagebrush
welcome to sagebrush country

I really only spent half a day at the launch, but it was absolutely worth the trip. I was able to launch two rockets – the cardboard HyperLOC 835 that I used for my L1 and L2 cert, and also the fiberglass Darkstar Extreme. This was the maiden flight for the latter rocket and it did not disappoint.

More importantly, this was my first chance to attend a large launch event with a lot of other people (although of course due to COVID-19, attendance was more limited than normal, and attendees were required to follow a variety of safety precautions, including wearing masks and spreading out). I got to witness lots of other flights, which was amazing, and I met some great people.

desert landscape with people standing at a table in foreground
the range at brothers

To summarize the launch site and conditions, it was hot, dry, and dusty. The winds periodically picked up, too, which made the dust more of an issue. But overall, coming from Seattle, I think this was an excellent place to launch.

I flew the HyperLOC 835 here on an I-500 motor just for fun. It was a successful flight, but the wind gusts were pretty high at times. After the parachute deployed, the winds carried the rocket far from the range. I saw where it landed (or so I thought) and began walking in that direction. Once the rocket touches the ground, though, it completely disappears behind the sage, so you have to just hope you’re still walking in the right direction. The longer you walk, the more your confidence begins to waver, and eventually it melts away as the uncertainty increases in direction proportion.

As it turns out, I apparently overshot it and went significantly further than I needed to. I walked for what felt like an eternity, eventually gave up and headed back toward the range – and then fortunately spotted the rocket hiding behind a bush.

red and white rocket in flight
HyperLOC 835

The main event for me, however, was the chance to fly the newly completed Darkstar Extreme, my first fiberglass rocket. This one weighs about 14 lbs and is overall a much more durable rocket. I had some assistance in getting it up on the launch pad.

navy blue and yellow rocket on the launch pad in the desert
Darkstar Extreme on the pad

I have to confess: I was a bit nervous because it was the first flight for this rocket. Sure, I’d built it and done some ground testing at home in my back yard, but was that sufficient? Would everything still work? The really critical components are related to the electronics for dual deployment of the parachutes. If the rocket never separates in the air and the parachutes don’t deploy, then this thing is coming back down like a ballistic missile. Not ideal for the rocket or for all the bystanders.

I was particularly concerned about whether I’d used enough black powder in the e-bay. When it detonated, would it be with enough force to separate the rocket? I’d done some ground testing at home and it separated, but not with the level of force I would like, and I hadn’t had time to do additional testing.

As I feared, the black powder exploded but not with enough force, and it didn’t cause separation. Fortunately, the motor ejection charge detonated as planned and this did cause the rocket to separate, so at least the drogue (smaller) parachute deployed. The heavy rocket came down a bit fast under such a small parachute – roughly 55 feet per second – but this was within a tolerable range and the rocket didn’t sustain any damage whatsoever. I count myself lucky.

navy blue and yellow rocket in flight with cloud of smoke beneath it
the moment of truth

Incidentally, the Darkstar Extreme flew on a K-535 motor and hit about 3,500 ft in altitude.

These launch experiences are a tremendous learning opportunity for me. Each time I attend one, I learn a lot, and in particular from my mistakes. Now I realize firsthand how important it is to properly calculate, measure, and test the correct amount of black powder to use for separation charges – and to test, and test again.

In addition, this experience underscored how critical it is to have a backup plan. After this launch, I decided to go back to the workbench and completely rebuild my e-bay for the Darkstar Extreme. I would add a second (backup) flight computer, along with a second battery and power switch, additional wiring and BP charge holders, and so on. Given the difficulty of locating a rocket after it lands, I also decided to add a sonic beeper just to help reduce to chances of losing a rocket. It would be easy to walk right by your rocket just a few feet away behind some bushes, and never even realize it – but a noise making device would alleviate that problem.

Nobody said that this would be an easy journey, but it’s definitely enjoyable and rewarding. Can’t wait for the next launch!

Top 8 reasons that rocketry is just like Pokemon

I grew up playing the original Pokemon games on Game Boy Color (Pokemon Red, specifically). The animated show was also popular at that time, and I’d watch an episode or two every morning before heading off to school. At the end of every episode was the “Poke Rap,” and I’d sing/ rap along since I knew it by heart. I’ve played many more Pokemon games since the days of Red/Blue (and Yellow), and I’ve seen additional seasons of the show. The characters change, and they keep adding more Pokemon. But I’ll always retain a certain fondness for the original 150.

Years later, I’ve discovered high power rocketry, and I was recently struck by the similarities. Below I’ve compiled a list of why rocketry is similar to Pokemon:

8. Collecting badges.

I recently earned my level 1 and level 2 certifications in high power rocketry (HPR) from the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), and NAR sent me these two badges. Now I can put these badges on the inside of my jacket and proudly display them whenever someone challenges my rocketry credentials – and after you defeat six more gym leaders to collect additional badges, you too can compete in the rocketry league!

close up of metal badges that say level 1 and level 2 certification

7. Expert guidance from Professor Oak.

You’ll find some great mentors – more experienced rocketeers – who can provide advice and wisdom on rocketry. They may or may not be actual professors named after plants (Oak, Ivy, etc.).

6. Friends like Misty and Brock.

You’ll meet lots of people on your journey and make some great friends along the way, even if you have to steal their bicycle or defeat them in battle first.

5. Team Rocket.

Enough said.

4. A frequently “shocking” experience.

With electrical ignition systems that are used to ignite all modern rocket motors, there’s no shortage of electricity themed puns – just like with every Pikachu attack!

pikachu jumping and using electric attack
a real shocker!

3. A superior rival.

Like Ash and Gary, you’ll discover and battle opponents, and there will always seem to be one who is one step ahead of you, at every turn. Unfortunately, you’ll probably never quite catch up.

2. Mom.

No matter how much you’ve been through and how much you’ve grown, there is always the risk that your mom may show up at the launch site, yelling at you to remember to change your underwear, and otherwise generally embarrassing you in front of a large crowd.

1. Bitter failures and setbacks.

There will be plenty of failures, devastation, and general catastrophe in your future, whether you’re battling with Pokemon or launching rockets. But you’ll learn some important life lessons along the way. And, in any event, things will be neatly wrapped up by the time the credits roll!