Space law and asteroid mining

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?

asteroid in space
can you own this?

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.

Article II

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.

Asteroid Mining

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.

Rules governing rockets and space launch

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.

rocket launching into the sky, with large smoke cloud below
rocket lab launch. image credit: new york times

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?

  1. Firearms, Close Assault Weapons and Combat Shotguns
  2. Guns and Armament
  3. Ammunition/Ordnance
  4. Launch Vehicles, Guided Missiles, Ballistic Missiles, Rockets, Torpedoes, Bombs, and Mines
  5. Explosives and Energetic Materials, Propellants, Incendiary Agents, and Their Constituents
  6. Surface Vessels of War and Special Naval Equipment
  7. Ground Vehicles
  8. Aircraft and Related Articles
  9. Military Training Equipment and Training
  10. Personal Protective Equipment
  11. Military Electronics
  12. Fire Control, Range Finder, Optical and Guidance and Control Equipment, Night vision goggles
  13. Materials and Miscellaneous Articles
  14. Toxicological Agents, Including Chemical Agents, Biological Agents, and Associated Equipment
  15. Spacecraft and Related Articles
  16. Nuclear Weapons Related Articles
  17. Classified Articles, Technical Data, and Defense Services Not Otherwise Enumerated
  18. Directed Energy Weapons
  19. Gas Turbine Engines and Associated Equipment
  20. Submersible Vessels and Related Articles
  21. 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.

Summary

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.

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.

How to build a rocket, or achieve any goal, step 2: Research

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.

image credit: pitt honors blog

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.

How to build a rocket, or achieve any goal, step 1: Set the goal

Is it legal to build and launch your own rocket?

man in green jacket looking up at the sky, with snow covered pine trees in background
me, pretending to daydream

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.

How to build a rocket, or achieve any other goal

I’ve been thinking for a while now that I should write something at greater length about how to build a rocket. Not the technical stuff – I’ve written extensively already about epoxy and airframes and electronics – but just the whole journey and mindset. I started with no knowledge or experience and, through a lot of trial and error, I still have no idea what I’m doing – but I could at least share the lessons I’ve learned so far.

smiling man in jeans and green coat standing outside holding a large white and red rocket horizontally
i built this

Perhaps these lessons could be generalized to a lot of other things. Not everyone necessarily wants to build a rocket, or so I’m told. But everyone has their own goals, just as ambitious and often even more so. And everyone has to complete some sort of personal or professional journey in order to get there.

So in the spirit of inclusiveness, here’s what I’ve learned since starting my rocketry journey that can be more broadly applied to any ambitious (or totally mundane) goals in your own life.

1. Set the goal. Figure out exactly what you want to do. This sounds like an obvious starting point, but it’s often easier said than done. You likely already know what you’d like to do, but sometimes you have a general idea and it’s just a little vague. Try to really get specific and measurable. For example, “I’d like to learn more” about some particular topic may be a little fuzzy, whereas “I will complete – and pass – this online course” about that topic is more specifically achievable.

2. Do some research. Find out everything you can about your specific goal and how to make it happen. Google it and poke around on the internet. Ask smarter and more experienced people for advice, and find a mentor. There may be more than one way to achieve your goal; there may also be large obstacles you didn’t foresee. If you’re anything like me, you likely have no idea what you’re getting into – and the more you learn, the more overwhelmed and discouraging it may be. Pro tip: don’t allow yourself to get discouraged too easily. Remember that other people have faced much larger odds and there’s always someone who has done something even more ambitious and/or crazy (of course, they did not always survive the attempt, so plan accordingly).

3. Create a plan. Once you’ve set a narrowly targeted goal and done some basic research related to it, you need a plan. Create a framework where you list every major step needed to achieve the goal. If each step appears daunting, break it into sub-steps so that it’s more manageable. Depending on your original goal and its complexity, you may need to drill down several levels here – maybe some of the smaller steps are still too much, and they need to be broken down further. Keep going, creating something like an outline, and get down to the level where you can complete the first step today – immediately. You may need to do this over several iterations, going back and revising the plan a couple of times to fine-tune it. If it’s too vague, then it’s too hard and won’t get done.

4. Jump in and get started. It’s tempting to just keep revising and tweaking the plan to perfect it. Resist this temptation. While you certainly need to think through your goal, do some research, and come up with a plan, you also cannot continue to plan forever. At a certain point, you need to just jump in and get started – otherwise you will be waiting indefinitely. And there’s a lot to be said for real life experience, and trial and error. Once you start, you’ll run into obstacles you didn’t know about, and perhaps could not have possibly known about, until you moved from the planning phase to the execution phase. You’ll realize certain things were more difficult than you thought, but you’ll also discover entirely new things that you really enjoy, and never would have known about otherwise.

5. Learn from mistakes. Keep plugging away. A slow pace is fine as long as you are making measurable and continuous progress. Remember that when you learn new things, your brain literally changes, forming new physical connections. This is amazing when you think about it. And along those lines, you will not only run into obstacles but you’ll also make some mistakes. Some will be unforced errors that you easily could have avoided. Other mistakes will inevitably happen no matter how well you planned or how much research you did. That’s fine. Don’t get discouraged – as the saying goes, sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn. A mistake or a loss can easily be transformed into a powerful lesson.

Bonus: celebrate completion – and then pivot and reassess. If you follow this plan and have the determination and willpower, you will get there. Don’t worry. And as soon as you achieve that goal, you’re entitled to celebrate and relax. But you may find that after completing this journey, your goal has shifted or evolved. That’s okay too. You are now a different person, with more knowledge and experience than when you first began this journey. As noted previously, your brain has physically rewired itself throughout the learning process. So post-goal completion, you may want to pivot to set a brand new goal, or to build on your previous success. Go for it: you have wisdom now, and you know you can do difficult things.

I’ll expand on each of these in some future posts.

West coast road trip day 5: Los Angeles

Finally made it to Los Angeles!

green and red cactus, succulents, and various desert plants
desert plants

The climate and environment changed slowly but steadily for the entire drive down the coast. You can see the dramatic differences more easily when comparing pictures from when we left to when we arrived. The Pacific Northwest is – as you’d expect – much more green, wet, and cloudy. Southern California is – also as you’d expect – dry, dusty, sunny, and hot. We haven’t seen any evidence that it actually rains here so far, although theoretically it must rain at some point. Right?

mexican food restaurant and painted mural on building with city street in foreground
tacos everywhere

It’s true that tacos are on every corner in LA. So is interesting artwork.

front yard of house with desert plants and dry dirt
local plants

Cactus and succulents are also on every corner, and literally line the streets. The landscaping varies from one house to another, but this type of yard is not unusual at all here.

I’m posting these pictures late, but we made the 1,100+ mile trip down highway 101 in about five days. It was incredibly scenic, and we barely scratched the surface – we could have easily extended the trip to 10 or 15 days and done it at a much slower pace, and we still wouldn’t have seen everything. It’s hard to top driving along a scenic coastline next to the Pacific Ocean, from beach towns to dense forests of ancient redwoods.

Going from Seattle to Los Angeles is a bit of a culture shock, separate and apart from the major change in climate. The city is a lot bigger and seems more chaotic (although to be fair, we just arrived, so everything is unfamiliar). And to take an example at random – drivers here are much more aggressive. Whereas in Seattle they are safe and courteous almost to a fault, in LA they will speed, tailgate, and frequently blow through red lights. Of course, we’re originally from Chicago, so these things are not quite as big a culture shock as they otherwise might be.

We’re only in LA for 12 months, and we plan to make the most of it. Expect more posts and pictures as we explore the city and surrounding area in southern California!

West coast road trip day 4: the “avenue of the giants”

On the fourth day of our road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles, we drove through even more redwoods in northern California. In Humboldt Redwoods State Park there is a long stretch of road you can take, separate from highway 101 but more or less parallel to it, that winds through the forest. It’s called the “Avenue of the Giants,” appropriately, and it’s spectacular.

view upwards towards the sky in a forest of tall trees on all sides
pretty tall trees

It’s definitely slower than 101 because of narrow turns and occasional stops (plus everyone is driving for the scenic view, and going very slowly as a result), but it’s worth the extra time. You just have to envision yourself as being in a parade, going no more than 20 mph, and you’ll be just fine.

sign for humboldt redwoods state park
welcome

There are other areas you can branch off and visit in this large state park, too, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to do anything other than drive through from one end to the other. Something about this forest feels majestic, though, like you’re in a sacred place.

forest of tall redwoods
majestic redwoods

After this, we drove a few hours further through northern and then central California, passed through Santa Rosa, and eventually crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, for which we later received a bill for an unpaid toll in the mail. Well-played, bridge operator.

This was our last overnight stop before the final leg of the trip: SF to LA.

West coast road trip day 3: redwoods

On the third day, we finished driving down the southern Oregon coast, entered northern California and spent some time at the beach in Crescent City, and – after waiting on some major road construction on highway 101 – finally made it to the legendary redwoods. We stopped at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and went on a short hike, although there was much more to see!

coastline with ocean and beach next to mountains
southern oregon

The coast in Oregon is really beautiful, although the further south you go, the more you start to get California vibes. Maybe it was just getting sunnier?

trail leading through forest with tall trees and fog in distance
an enchanted forest

The stops along the way also don’t disappoint. This was one of several that we made, at the “natural bridges” viewpoint. You can see why it’s named that in the next picture.

rock formation in water, surrounded by trees and thick fog
natural bridges viewpoint

This is a rock formation out in the ocean forming a “natural bridge” across the water. Just another pit stop along the way!

sandy beach with ocean on a sunny day
crescent city beach

Eventually we crossed into California (where we were even stopped by state customs officials and asked about any produce or plants we may be bringing across state lines). The first sizeable town is Crescent City, and we stopped at a restaurant called SeaQuake for a late lunch and then checked out the ocean. Our first California beach!

two people standing next to extremely large trees, on a wooden boardwalk in the forest
these are some large trees

Later, we made it further south to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, one of several areas where you can see the redwood forests. We went for a short hike, although it was getting later in the day by this point (a familiar theme on this trip). Our five month old baby, Ava, was a real trooper. She definitely enjoys going on hikes, but of course she gets all of the benefits (fresh air, amazing sights) while expending no energy and being effortlessly carried around.

West coast road trip day 2: Oregon coast

After a brief interlude in Portland, we headed out the next morning for the Oregon coast and Pacific Ocean. We’ve previously been to Astoria and Cannon Beach in the far northwest corner of the state, and we had a long drive ahead of us, so we saved some time and went southwest through Tillamook to Pacific City, and drove south along the coast from there.

coastline with beach and large rocks in the distance on a cloudy day
rocky coast

The Oregon coast is beautiful, with a mix of beaches and high rocky cliffs. The coast is also dotted with seaside towns: some of the bigger ones as you head south are Lincoln City, Depoe Bay, Newport, Reedsport, Coos Bay, and Port Orford – and at some point you eventually exit Oregon and enter northern California.

On the second day of our trip, we made it to town called Bandon, just south of Coos Bay.

But on the way down, we stopped for one incredible hike: Cascade Head trail. We heard great things about this trail and were looking forward to checking it out, especially since it was one of the few things we’d built in extra time for on the drive down. And then of course, just our luck:

trailhead sign stating trail is closed
closed?!

The trail was closed.

Well, we made it this far, and we weren’t going to let a sign stop us. We forged ahead on the trail – along with a lot of other people we ran into along the way – and I’m glad we did.

trail through a green forest with tall pine trees
cascade head trail

The trail started at ground level through a large forested area but had a pretty steady elevation gain. After a while, we emerged onto the top of a large hill with a grassy open plain – and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and the coast.

view from the top

We paused to rest and take a few pictures, and then began the journey back down. I would highly recommend this hike if you’re ever passing through the area. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay longer or check out nearby trails, but we had a long drive still ahead of us – and a baby whose patience was quickly wearing out!