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!

High Power Rocketry: L1 Certification Flight

Finally! According to the National Association of Rocketry, I now officially have my level 1 certification in high power rocketry.

rocket launching into the air with fire and smoke below

I finished building my first high power rocket, the HyperLOC 835, back in December, but getting certified requires a successful flight and recovery of the rocket. But clubs don’t often host launch events in the winter months, and those that do are still subject to weather conditions (e.g., snowstorms). It’s helpful to have a club host a launch because you need (a) access to a large suitable area of land, (b) a waiver from the FAA to launch up to a certain altitude, and (c) launch equipment, such as launch pads and rails and an electric ignition system.

Clubs often start hosting launch events in the spring, but in spring 2020, COVID-19 hit, and things were cancelled or postponed.

I was finally able to attend a launch in June in south central Washington, about a 4 hour drive from where I live in the Seattle area.

I ended up launching the HyperLOC 835 on an Aerotech I-140 motor. The rocket is capable of dual deploy using a flight computer, but for this L1 certification flight I wanted it to be as simple as possible, so I didn’t use electronics. The recovery system was a parachute that deployed when the rocket separated using the motor ejection charge.

white and red rocket on launch pad
maiden flight

The weather looked ominous: it was cloudy, and we felt a few raindrops hitting us periodically, but it seemed to be holding steady.

The rocket launched, the parachute deployed, and it landed without a scratch in the tall grasses. The only tricky part was locating it. But since I was able to see the general area where it landed, it wasn’t too difficult to find.

yellow parachute in a sea of green tall grasses
a sea of tall grasses

Luckily the bright yellow parachute was pretty easy to spot from a distance, even though the rocket had sunk into a sea of tall grasses.

white rocket with text "improbable ventures" lying in tall grasses
a venture most improbable

Overall, it was a textbook launch and went as smoothly as could be expected! I’d estimate the rocket went about 1,700 ft in altitude, but as mentioned above, I didn’t use electronics for this flight so I can’t say for sure.

Immediately after this, I took the level 2 written exam, which is required prior to the level 2 certification flight, and I passed that (not difficult considering I’d had six months to study). It started raining more heavily, though, and we weren’t sure if we would need to call it a day and head out. But we waited another 30 minutes for the rain to stop, and then the skies cleared up and the sun came out. Perfect timing for my L2 certification flight, which I’ll summarize in my next post!

Next rocket: Darkstar Extreme

Winter is not a popular time for high power rocket launches. Few clubs actually hold major launch events in the winter months – and the rare brave souls who do are nevertheless subject to the weather. I did find a local club (about a 4 hour drive from Seattle) that has a standing FAA waiver to launch one day each month, but the weather hasn’t been cooperating and so it was cancelled in December, January, February, and March.

Fortunately, spring is here, and clubs start holding many more launches in the coming months, as the weather steadily improves. Unfortunately… COVID-19 hit, and everything is cancelled until further notice. So April is out, and probably May as well. Everyone is at home, with shelter in place and lockdown orders in effect.

On the bright side, it’s a great time to start construction on my next rocket. My most recent project, the HyperLOC 835, has a 4″ diameter body, with a 54mm motor mount. The body is made from (very durable) cardboard and the nosecone is plastic. It’s a great rocket and I’m looking forward to launching it on several different motors, and with a flight computer and electronics bay capable of dual deployment.

My next rocket, though, will be the Wildman Rocketry “Darkstar Extreme.” It also has a 4″ rocket body, but with a 75mm motor mount that can fit more powerful motors, potentially up to an M. (As an aside, an N or O motor only comes in the 98mm variety and would require an even larger diameter motor mount.) The rocket body is made from fiberglass, and the nosecone is fiberglass as well with an aluminum tip.

rocksim design file of the darkstar extreme rocket
the darkstar extreme, in sexy and exciting two-dimensional glory

Above is the design file for the Darkstar Extreme, from Rocksim, a rocket design and simulation program.

And here’s the description from the manufacturer, Wildman Rocketry:

Leave it to Wildman to push the Darkstar to the Max with this radical upgrade. No Mildmen allowed!
This beast is ready to rock on any motor you can stuff in it!”

Can’t go wrong with that. Time to take full advantage of the quarantine.