How to build a rocket, or achieve any goal, part 3: Create a plan

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?

rolled up paper blueprints
image credit: adobe stock

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.

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