2020: A Rocketry Year in Review

The rearview mirror

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.

Rearview mirror in a car with road and mountains
Looking through the rearview mirror

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.

Here’s to 2021!

Revisiting my 2020 rocketry goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for some exciting updates!

High Power Rocketry: L2 Certification Flight

Officially level 2 certified!

rocket launching into the blue sky, with fire and smoke below
textbook flight

Fulfilling a 2020 goal

I really started getting into rocketry last fall, less than a year ago, and I had set some goals for 2020 when the year began. My goals included getting level 1 and level 2 certifications in high power rocketry (HPR) through the National Association of Rocketry (NAR).

I think 2020 threw some curveballs at just about everybody, myself included – but after a few false starts and delays, I was able to launch my first high power rocket in central Washington on a beautiful day in June, and as I wrote about previously, I got my L1 cert.

I deliberately chose and constructed a rocket that could be used for both L1 and L2 certification (i.e. it is capable of launching on a more powerful motor), and I built it to be dual deploy capable. I also had plenty of time to study for the written exam, which is required after the L1 certification but prior to the L2 flight. Timing is everything.

Because of this, I was able to do everything in a single day – L1 flight, L2 written exam (which I passed, of course), and L2 flight. I had more than six months to prepare for this day, so it’s not particularly impressive!

white rocket with orange and yellow parachutes lying on ground in green field
a safe landing

L1 vs. L2 flights

On the L1 flight – the maiden voyage – I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks and decided to keep it as simple as possible, so I didn’t attempt using any electronics or dual deploy. The rocket separated through a simple motor ejection charge.

But for the L2 flight, I wanted to try the flight computer and dual deploy. I was a little nervous because while I checked and rechecked everything in advance, this was still the first actual attempt and there were a lot of firsts: first time using any flight computer or black powder charges, first time arming the electronics on the launch pad, first time using the ground station to communicate via radio with the rocket (using a laptop with the appropriate software and a connected Yagi antenna), etc.

Everything went smoothly, from the launch (see first photo above) to deployment of the drogue parachute at apogee and the main parachute closer to the ground. I recovered the rocket without any damage.

white rocket with text "improbable ventures" lying on ground in green field
mildly improbable

L2 flight data breakdown

What’s particularly cool is the flight computer not only fires multiple pyro charges (and therefore controls the rocket’s separation and deployment of two parachutes), but it also contains an altimeter and other sensors that record the rocket’s maximum height and its descent speed.

For my L2 flight, the rocket reached 3,506 ft, with a maximum speed of 599 ft/sec (Mach 0.5). In other words, the rocket’s max speed was about one-half the speed of sound.

The descent rate under the drogue parachute was 39 ft/sec, and under the main parachute it was 27 ft/sec. The HyperLOC 835 is a fairly lightweight cardboard rocket with a gross liftoff weight (that is, a weight including the motor, parachutes, and everything else inside) of only about 6 lbs, and this descent rate was more than sufficient for a safe landing.

All in all, this was a fantastic experience. A four hour drive each way made this a very long day, but it was absolutely worth making the trip. Inevitably, I also learned a tremendous amount – for example, how to set up a large rocket on the pad and launch rail, how to use the flight computer and ground station software, etc. I also learned what types of things that I could do better next time. Overall, I’m even more excited about future launches – trying out new techniques, flying on even more powerful motors, and capturing data with the flight computer to beat my own previous records!