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!

West coast road trip day 1: Oregon zoo

As mentioned in my last post about general updates and major life events, we just moved from Seattle to Los Angeles about two weeks ago. While movers loaded and hauled away most of our stuff, we also needed to transport a car, and we figured it would be a good opportunity for a once in a lifetime scenic drive down the entire west coast, starting from near the Canadian border and ending quite a bit further south. We crammed everything we could into the car (including a 5 month old baby) and headed out from Seattle after a long and chaotic moving day.

The drive was just as scenic as expected, and more. We took highway 101 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway) pretty much the entire way down, which often follows the coast and is right on the Pacific Ocean (although some parts are further inland). If you google something like west coast and route 101, the first results that pop up are “The Classic Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip,” with “classic” being swapped out for other adjectives like “ultimate” or “epic,” depending on the particular article and the level of enthusiasm of its author.

hand drawn map of highway 101 along west coast
the route we took from seattle to los angeles (on the left, along the coast). image credit: fodor’s.

Regardless, it was an amazing drive. We went through incredibly scenic areas, from dense forests to rocky cliffs along the coast, and also visited several large cities after Seattle, including Portland and San Francisco.

We started the trip at a more leisurely pace on the first day by just driving from Seattle to Portland, and we spent some time sightseeing a bit before moving on. In particular, we visited the Oregon Zoo in Portland, which has won awards (many of them, in fact). It was impressive!

boardwalk into a green forested area
entrance to the oregon zoo in portland
three sea otters
sea otters
two giraffes standing under trees
how’s the weather up there?

We saw bears, bald eagles, sea otters, seals, giraffes, bats, monkeys and apes (including chimpanzees) and much more. It was also our daughter’s first trip to any zoo. Overall, it was a great start to a long and epic trip!

Status update!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog – and if you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you are – then you may be asking yourself where in god’s name I’ve been for the past few months. What can I possibly have been doing that would justify this extended hiatus? Who do I think I am?!

I don’t have a single great explanation. I have several of them.

Back in February, I mentioned that my wife and I had our first baby, Ava. This alone was a life-altering event that has occupied most of my time ever since. The whole experience has been amazing, and we are really lucky to have had a healthy baby. Perhaps too healthy – she is better described by words like robust and zesty. A real zest for life. No idea who she gets that from.

baby on play mat looking curiously at camera
ava, 5 months old

Somehow, in addition to working full time and caring for a newborn, I also took a few classes at a local community college in Seattle. I had previously talked about taking a computer programming course last fall, and a chemistry prep class as well as a geology class dedicated to dinosaurs, both in winter quarter, from January through March of this year. I wrote a few brief posts related to topics from that class, such as asking which dinosaur had the longest neck, but overall that one was just for fun. My primary motivation for taking classes, though, has been to get some additional math and science courses under my belt, since I feel like I never really got the formal education in those areas that I should have, years ago in college. After finishing the chemistry prep course, the next logical one to take was general chemistry – so I took that in spring quarter, April through June. While this one was also pretty difficult, I’m proud to say I got an A in each class.

And then, a week after the chemistry class ended and with a 5 month old baby in tow, we moved across the country, driving about 1,200 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles.

We are only in LA for 12 months for my wife’s job – getting additional training – but as you can imagine, this move involved an extraordinary amount of planning and execution to pull off successfully. We had to find a new place to live in LA (without being able to fly and visit in person, due to the pandemic and the baby); find and secure child care in LA (again, from across the country); figure out what to do with our house in Seattle; hire movers; plan out a week-long drive down the west coast; and then actually pack up the entire house and move.

By now, you can probably see why I haven’t had a chance to continue updating the blog over the past few months.

That being said, all of that planning and execution related to the move is behind us, and we’re mostly unpacked and settled into our place in LA, ready to explore and enjoy the city. We only have a year, so we want to make the most of it. I am taking summer quarter off (in an academic sense, at least) so I can focus more on everything else mentioned above and start some other projects.

What this means for you is I’ll be cranking out additional blog posts on a regular basis. You can thank me later!