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.

Going down in flames: how to self-destruct with rockets

The big day was finally here.

man standing in front of small trailer holding large red and white rocket
my pride and joy

I finished building the L3 Fusion rocket in early September and was ready to launch – once the wildfire smoke cleared in the PNW – as soon as the opportunity arose. And in late October, I had my chance.

The plan

On a frigid Saturday morning, with my wife joining the small crowd gathered at the rocket launch out near Walla Walla, WA, I went through my pre-launch checklist and got the rocket ready for flight. It was mostly ready to go – the black powder charges were prepared and loaded inside the rocket, the M-1297 reloadable motor was already built, the wiring for all the electronics was nearly complete. All I needed to do was plug each flight computer into its respective battery, turn on the GoPro camera, and seal up the rocket with a few rivets. And, of course, install the motor. Easy enough.

I’ve described this rocket before but just to quickly recap, the L3 Fusion is a 5.5″ diameter, nearly 8 ft tall high power rocket specifically designed for level 3 certification. It’s available from SBR at fusionrocket.biz and I highly recommend it. The rocket is cardboard and therefore lightweight (only 11 lbs before adding the M motor, which itself weighs another 11 lbs), but it’s reinforced and double-tubed from top to bottom, and then coated with an epoxy – basically making the rocket incredibly strong despite the light weight. On an M-1297 motor, this thing should fly to 9,000 ft or higher.

The key word, of course, is “should.”

I was a bit nervous, but mostly hopeful and excited. The temperature that morning was brisk – around 30 degrees F – and it didn’t take long for my fingers to get cold and then start to feel numb. It’s particularly difficult when you’re trying to mess with very tiny wires and electronics – think eyeglasses screwdriver (which is literally what I was using to attach wires to flight computers).

man holding large rocket horizontally above his head, walking through field
getting the rocket on the pad

But I had built this rocket entirely under the watchful eye of the man who designed it, with his recommendations. We even filmed the entire build as a tutorial for future generations, so this event might go down in history. I can’t say I built the rocket flawlessly, but I was pretty confident the flight would be successful.

As you have probably guessed by now, it was not.

rocket launching with cloud of smoke underneath
L3 Fusion liftoff!

The disaster

The countdown began: 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

With a thunderous roar, the rocket shot off the pad and climbed into the sky with lightning speed. An M motor is a pretty powerful one, and so this was expected. What was not expected was just a few seconds into the flight, as we watched it ascend and disappear into the sky, was another loud boom. The smoke behind the rocket, which was otherwise basically a vertical line, suddenly changed as the rocket veered sharply from its trajectory.

It broke up and fell back to the ground in multiple pieces, and the certification attempt was a bust.

We mounted a search with half a dozen people scouring the hilly area where we saw the parts land, and we were able to find and recover everything except for the rocket’s three fins. The fins were completely torn off, but a lot of the rest of the rocket was largely undamaged. We even found the electronics, despite the fact that the e-bay fell separately from the rest of the rocket and it’s quite small and difficult to spot in small bushes and tall grasses on a hill.

damaged rocket parts scattered on ground
the aftermath

The aftermath

You can learn a lot from studying a rocket failure, just by seeing what happened to the airframe. You can sometimes learn even more if you recover the electronics and download the flight data (assuming they’re still working properly), and/or from an onboard camera like a GoPro.

In this case, it seemed obvious that the fins experienced fin flutter, which is a phenomenon where the forces acting on the fins are much higher than they should be under normal flight conditions, and the extreme vibrations can either change the rocket’s trajectory or even destroy the fins.

Leaving aside complicated discussions of aerodynamics, fins are really important to a rocket. The rocket itself is streamlined and has a motor at the bottom which accelerates the rocket upwards (vertically), but anytime the rocket deviates from that vertical path, the fins stabilize it. The air pushing against the broad fins with large surface area pushes the bottom of the rocket back into place. It’s an ingenious system that self-corrects without the need for a sophisticated computerized guidance system. (Very sophisticated and large rockets tend not to have fins precisely because they do have such computerized guidance systems.)

Without fins, the rocket has no stability. In this case, the moment one or more fins were damaged due to flutter, the rocket careened significantly off its straight trajectory. Since it was still traveling at very high speeds just a few seconds into the flight, the forces acting on the rocket were tremendous and it was almost instantly destroyed.

close up view of damaged rocket with missing fins
the fin can, minus fins

As you can see in the picture above, the entire bottom of the booster section of the airframe was destroyed and all three fins were torn off. Some of the rest of the airframe was damaged, despite the fact that it was double tubed and reinforced with some serious epoxy. And the drogue (smaller) parachute disappeared into oblivion.

But much of the rocket was surprisingly undamaged. The larger parachute never even unraveled and was completely fine, along with both white shock cords connecting everything together. The nose cone and electronics were in great condition as well. Unfortunately both flight computers had their batteries ripped out during this event so they lost power and stopped recording data after the first few seconds, but both are in perfect working order and only needed new batteries, an easy fix.

The conclusion

It also seems clear that the cause of the fin issue was my own flawed construction technique. Typically, with previous rockets, I’ve built the fin can (i.e. the section of the rocket consisting of the motor mount tube and the fins) outside of the larger diameter rocket airframe, and then inserted the fin can into the airframe. This allowed me to use plenty of epoxy attaching the fins to the motor mount tube at the root edge of the fin, and to build up thick epoxy fillets.

In this case, however, I inserted the motor mount tube into the airframe first, and then attached the fins “through the wall” of the airframe tube. I likely didn’t use nearly enough epoxy on the root edge of the fins when inserting them – and because of this, at least one was yanked off during flight when it experienced flutter.

The reboot

I knew what I had to do. Rebuild the entire rocket (salvaging a few parts from the original if possible, like the parachute and shock cords) and this time, build the fin can outside the airframe and use plenty of epoxy on the fins. Make sure those fins are securely attached and incredibly strong.

Which is exactly what I did, for my level 3 certification attempt #2, just three weeks later.

How did that attempt go, you ask? Well, let me go put on some coffee and I’ll tell you all about it..

Going viral

I’ve periodically uploaded videos of some of my rocket launches during the past year (with more to come soon, of course). Generally, my YouTube videos don’t get a ton of views. Most of them have maybe 50 or 60 views; some of the more interesting ones have about 600-700. But one video seems to have really taken off – no pun intended.

What’s fascinating to me about this is: why? This is just a twelve second video clip of a rocket launch. It’s the Darkstar Extreme rocket that I built earlier this year, and this particular flight is on a K-535 motor, a common and standard workhorse motor. This video is not very different from several others that I’ve uploaded recently. Yet suddenly and without warning, the views started to dramatically increase: as of when I’m writing this, it’s topped 94,000 views.

As a nice side effect, it’s caused my YouTube channel to gain a bunch of new subscribers. Some sizeable fraction of people who casually see this clip want to subscribe – my total number of subscribers has risen from about 30 to over 170 in the past week or so. This is awesome, from my perspective.

I’m just not sure what accounts for this sudden interest. YouTube provides some analytics and it looks like most traffic (82 percent) is coming from YouTube Shorts, which is something new YouTube rolled out: a vertical video format that’s basically meant to compete with TikTok.

YouTube Shorts logo
YouTube Shorts logo

Another 13 percent of viewers are finding this through their suggested videos. Very few people are finding the video by using specific search terms (e.g. rocket launch).

But it’s still mysterious: why this particular video when I have several similar ones? Why now?

If anyone has any suggested explanations, I’d definitely be interested, since I’m still relatively new to this and figuring out how it all works!