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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
There’s a common misconception that any kind of large prehistoric animal is a dinosaur – from a t-rex to the flying pterodactyl to the woolly mammoth.
When I first heard this, I couldn’t believe it. Did people really believe that a woolly mammoth qualified as a dinosaur? Obviously a woolly mammoth was covered in thick fur (hence the name), which makes it a mammal, even if you knew nothing else about it. They just aren’t reptilian like dinosaurs.
But flying prehistoric reptiles (like pterosaurs) and swimming prehistoric reptiles (like plesiosaurs) – those were just different types of dinosaurs, right?
Until recently, I didn’t realize that plesiosaurs and pterosaurs are not considered dinosaurs. I had mistakenly lumped them all together. True, they were all reptiles and they lived during the same geological time period (the Mesozoic Era), but they were sufficiently different from an evolutionary and biological perspective that they aren’t categorized as dinosaurs at all.
Plesiosaurs were a group of long-necked marine reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic Era, from the late Triassic period, through the entire Jurassic period, to the late Cretaceous period (roughly 225 million to 80 million years ago). Some, but not all, types of plesiosaurs continued to exist until the end of the Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago. This is approximately the same geologic time period as the dinosaurs.
While the name “dinosaur” means “terrible lizard,” the name “plesiosaur” means “close to lizard,” an appropriate name since they were admittedly similar in many ways to the dinosaurs.
The world map looked extremely different hundreds of millions of years ago, but plesiosaurs were geographically distributed in many areas, throughout the Pacific Ocean and near what is now North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia.
Early in their history, plesiosaurs split into two different lineages – pliosauroids and plesiosauroids. The latter had a longer neck that was very flexible. Interestingly, later on, plesiosaurs increased dramatically in size (up to 43 feet or so) and the neck reached extreme lengths. with half the total body length consisting of the neck and head. And the jaws had an estimated biting force of around 33,000 psi, possibly the largest known bite force of any animal!
There is even some evidence that plesiosaurs may have been warm blooded and gave birth to live young, rather than laying eggs. Of course, there is significant debate about whether some dinosaurs were similarly warm blooded, but that is a topic for another post…
When most people imagine a dinosaur, they might initially think of a large, menacing tyrannosaurus rex, or the slow and lumbering stegosaurus with huge plates along its back, or the three-horned triceratops with its massive frill or crest above its neck. But one of the most frequently recognized types of dinosaurs is a sauropod.
As mentioned in my last post, all dinosaurs are generally divided into two categories: saurischia (“lizard hips”) and ornithischia (“bird hips”). Within saurischia, it’s further broken down into theropods (bipedal carnivores like t-rex) and sauropods.
Sauropods were plant-eating dinosaurs that walked on all four legs and had extremely long necks, with relatively small heads. They grew to colossal sizes and were the largest animals to have ever walked the earth. Technically blue whales are larger, but they live in the ocean and don’t have to deal with the constraints of gravity, so it’s apples and oranges in terms of a comparison. Some of the most well known sauropods are brontosaurus (now known as apatosaurus, though this is a heated debate among some paleontologists) and brachiosaurus.
It’s true that a lot of sauropods had very long necks – it seems to be one of their defining features. But the long neck is intriguing, and it raises several questions. Why is the neck so long? Structurally speaking, how was this possible? And which dinosaur had the longest neck?
It’s always hard to say anything with total certainty about animals that went extinct more than 66 million years ago. I had never heard of the “Mamenchisaurus” until recently, but it seems to be a strong contender for dinosaur with the longest neck, and in any pictures (whether skeletal or depictions of what it probably looked like in real life) it’s startling. The Mamenchisaurus was approximately 60 feet in total length, and a good 30 feet of that was just the neck. Relative to its body size, this animal had the longest neck of any known dinosaur.
The Mamenchisaurus lived in what is now China (though of course the map looked very different back then) and seems to have lived during the Middle and Late Jurassic, and possibly in the Early Cretaceous.
At first, I thought that the purpose of the long neck would have been to reach really tall vegetation and trees, like modern giraffes. But it seems more likely that the dinosaur used its neck more horizontally to reach medium height or lower level vegetation, and the benefit in neck length was instead to sweep across much larger areas. This way, it didn’t need to move its body much (if at all) while feeding. No doubt this saved a lot of energy considering the colossal size and weight of the body!
Meet Mamenchisaurus, American Museum of Natural History
Continuing the temporary non-rocketry theme from my last post –
I signed up for two classes beginning in early January: chemistry, which is an accelerated course that crams three months’ worth of material into four dense weeks, and a geology course all about dinosaurs, which takes place at a more reasonable pace. They’re both virtual classes, given the ongoing pandemic. Both have been really fascinating, and everyone loves dinosaurs, so I figured I’d post something about tyrannosaurus rex or a colossal, lumbering brontosaurus (or apatosaurus – more on that later).
Just as background, dinosaurs are generally divided into two major groups: saurischia and ornithischia. Within the saurischia group, it’s broken down even further into theropods and sauropods.
Theropods are a fascinating and really diverse group of dinosaurs, and at the risk of overgeneralizing a bit, theropods are meat-eating predators with very large and very sharp teeth. They had big heads and jaws, and they evolved to run at fast speeds on two legs, something that is obviously quite unusual among any animals, either back then or today. Their arms and hands were notoriously tiny (think t-rex arms), just because they weren’t that useful. Chasing down prey and catching it in your jaws requires powerful leg and jaw muscles, but not hands or arms, necessarily.
Speaking of tyrannosaurs, there have been some interesting recent discoveries about a baby t-rex.
The background on the recent discoveries is that a tiny jaw fossil was found in Montana in 1983, and decades later, another tiny foot claw fossil was discovered in 2018 in Alberta, Canada. Both were roughly 71-75 million years old. Researchers didn’t know what they were looking at right away, but eventually realized that both fossils belonged to a baby t-rex. The jaw was extremely small, but it closely resembles other known t-rex jaws.
What these fossils meant – for the rest of us non-paleontologists – is that a baby t-rex was extremely small compared to an adult t-rex. Babies, when they hatched, were about 3 feet long, compared to the adult that was up to 40 feet in length!
What makes these discoveries so unusual is that there aren’t very many fossilized baby or young dinosaur skeletons in general, partly because the bones are so tiny and fragile. And while things like feathers don’t fossilize (as skeletal bones do), there’s indirect evidence that the baby t-rex would have hatched with feathers, looking kind of like a fluffy baby chicken – but much bigger and with a long tail, and presumably more menacing.
The babies also had a different set of teeth, and it seems that they went through several sets as their diets changed as they grew older and larger. Dinosaurs are nothing if not chock full of interesting facts, and so I will leave you with one final impressive fact: once the babies grew into adults with their final set of teeth (and massive heads, jaws, and corresponding muscles), they could bite through anything, including bone, causing their prey to explode! This is very different from how a modern lion or tiger bites and kills its prey, which is more of a fatal bite that causes the prey to bleed out. Impressive for a creature that starts off life so small and looking like a fluffy chick.
American Museum of Natural History: What Did a Baby T. rex Look Like?
Wow! It’s been a while since my last post, so I feel obligated to provide some sort of explanation. It’s been a busy start to the new year. My wife and I had our first baby, Ava, near the end of January, and there was a tremendous amount do in preparation for her winter arrival. And of course there’s been even more to do ever since she joined us nearly four weeks ago! As you might expect, the past month has been a complete blur. We’re a bit overwhelmed but are managing to adapt to life with a newborn. We’re extremely fortunate that everything went well, and we have a happy and healthy baby.
Improbable Ventures is meant to be primarily about rockets, from theoretical rocket science to my practical misadventures in high power rocketry (much more to come on this topic soon). But it is also meant to be broader, encompassing related projects and ventures, and it’s impossible to completely separate it from my own personal life as well – which is why you might see me writing the occasional article about a class I’m taking, or a recent trip or hike I took, or a new baby.
As a sleep-deprived new father, I’m not sure that I have anything particularly profound to say about parenthood that hasn’t been said much more eloquently by other people, many times before. It’s exciting and exhausting. I thought it would be a lot of work, but it turned out to be more than I’d imagined. It’s not particularly complicated; it’s just that virtually nonstop, around the clock care is required.
More interesting than any perspective I can provide is the baby’s point of view. What a dramatic difference to go from being in the womb – totally dark, almost like a sensory deprivation chamber except for hearing mom’s heartbeat and her voice on a regular basis – to suddenly (unwillingly) being born. It must be total sensory overload, except you have no words for anything, no way to describe your experience even within your own mind, and no way to understand anything that’s happening or what might come next. The baby has never had to use her lungs and breathe on her own before, or feel hunger, do things like drink and swallow milk, and suddenly she is forced to figure all of this out – and fast.
While it’s true that babies basically just eat, sleep, and cry (there’s no shortage of crying) all day and all night, it’s remarkable that they learn as rapidly as they do!
A little over one year ago, I came across a question on Quora (an internet forum) about whether it would be legal to build and launch your own rocket into orbit.
I’d always been interested in rockets and space, but I never seriously considered doing this or even realized it was possible, or legal. How realistic is this kind of project? Do you need anyone’s permission, i.e. the FAA? The US government?
One month and an uncountably high number of Google searches later, I was actively exploring the possibilities.
Near the end of 2019 (before we had any idea what kind of year 2020 would be), I set a few rocketry-related goals for myself. I was just realizing that anyone can build and launch real, working model rockets. And they could build and launch big ones, too – high power rockets. I decided to try it out, first building a few smaller low power rockets and sending them up with a small launch pad, and then building my first high power rocket. Somewhat unexpectedly, one of the bigger obstacles I ran into wasn’t the construction of the rockets, but finding a suitable launch site. But I found a few places and had some initial successes. I set some concrete goals going into the new year.
My 2020 goals included the following:
build and successfully launch my first high power rocket;
get my NAR HPR level 1 certification (H or I motor);
get my level 2 certification (J, K, or L motor);
build my first electronics bay, learn more about flight computers, and use dual deploy for parachutes;
get my amateur (“ham”) radio license;
renovate my backyard garden shed and build a practical workshop, primarily for rocket projects;
get my level 3 certification (M, N, or O motor); and
build a two-stage rocket.
Overall, things went pretty well. I didn’t achieve everything on the list, but I did accomplish many of these things and got some high power rocketry experience under my belt – basically everything except the L3 cert and the two stage rocket. And I did actually build my L3 rocket (three separate times!) but had two flight certification attempts that were not successful, so I came close but didn’t quite pull it off. In general, I did a lot of stuff I’d never done before, and learned a tremendous amount along the way.
In short, I had a blast!
The future plans
Turning to 2021, it’s a new year and time to set some new goals. The logical starting point is with the goals I didn’t quite get to finish in 2020. Was I too ambitious? Crazy? Did I just run out of time? Who knows?
Since I already rebuilt my L3 rocket for the third time and it’s ready to fly, my first goal is getting my L3 certification. This will let me fly M, N, and O motors (and there are some even bigger ones beyond that, but first things first). There are no additional certification levels, though, after L3.
Next, I intend to build a two stage rocket. It can be fairly simple and inexpensive – no need to start off with something overly complex right off the bat – but I want to get a solid understanding of staging, and specifically staging using electronics (multiple flight computers). There are a couple important “events” with a two stage rocket, but basically the first stage (booster) ignites on the ground and “boosts” it high into the air, and then the second stage (sustainer) ignites mid-air. The first stage also breaks off and falls back to the ground at this point, reducing total weight and drag so the sustainer can fly much higher on its own. I’ll have much more to say about this two stage project once I dive in.
After that, I’d like to start on a more ambitious two stage project – something made of fiberglass, minimum diameter, and more sophisticated. Ideally I might be able to build a two stage rocket using one M and one N motor that can hit 100,000 ft, but more likely it would be a high altitude rocket that goes a few tens of thousands of feet into the air. I’ll see what’s realistic as I get closer to this goal.
In the meantime, I’m also taking some more math and science classes in 2021. Right now I’m enrolled in a chemistry course as well as a geology course dedicated to dinosaurs. The latter is entirely just for fun and has nothing to do with rocketry, but it isn’t extremely time consuming or demanding either. Chemistry is much more intense, but it’s also much more critical to rocketry, especially if I want to eventually build my own solid fuel motors or get into liquid fuel or something down the road.
On December 9, SpaceX conducted a test of its Starship rocket, and it was spectacular.
The rocket was called SN-8 (which just stands for Serial Number 8), following the naming pattern for each new iteration of the rocket. Elon Musk originally unveiled the idea for the Starship rocket last fall, and the prototypes SN-5 and SN-6 flew about 500 feet before falling back down. This test of a more complete looking Starship went up 12 kilometers, the vehicle’s first high altitude test.
Many people in the rocketry community watched this live. Below is a great condensed/ time lapse video showing both the launch and the landing, in case you missed it:
Basically, SN-8 had a successful launch and flew vertically for 5 minutes, then began falling back to earth. After cutting its engines, it fell horizontally – the “belly flop” maneuver – which maximizes surface area to help slow its descent.
As a side note, there are a lot of principles in rocketry that are the same whether you’re building and flying a very small model rocket or a colossal commercial rocket, and one of them is drag and aerodynamics. Rockets are sleek and meant to minimize drag and air resistance when they’re moving vertically (or in whatever direction they are pointed), but they are really inefficient and have enormous drag if moving at an angle or horizontally. You’d be surprised how slowly even a large, heavy rocket falls back to the ground without any parachute when it’s falling sideways, and often in multiple (connected) separated pieces.
Anyway, back to SN-8: the belly flop was successful in slowing it down somewhat, and then its engines turned back on to turn the rocket again for a vertical landing. Unfortunately, it was still descending a bit too quickly when it hit the launch pad (perfectly on target) and it exploded in a fireball. But overall, this was an unbelievable achievement.
SpaceX is continuing to innovate and make things that were just recently science fiction into a reality.
My own progress in rocketry may be impressive, but it’s not quite at that level yet. I have some catching up to do!