December 2019 meeting

Dave Nordling, Secretary, Reaction Research Society

The Reaction Research Society (RRS) met for our last monthly meeting of the year on December 13, 2019, at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center in Gardena, California. We had a full house with three different universities represented and a few returning members who came out to see how this year was ending for the society. The Compton College STEM club came out and some of them joined the RRS that night. Compton College is working on their own liquid rocket build which may next year see some important testing conducted.

Compton College STEM club at the December 2019 meeting of the RRS. From left to right, Katherine Perez, Desiree Medina, Erik Aparicio, Jamie Alvarez

Frank Chandler who is the director of Cal Poly Pomona’s (CPP) liquid rocket group and an RRS member was also at the meeting to discuss a March test date at the RRS MTA. He mentioned that Cal Poly Pomona recently had a tour of the AstroPak company in Downey, California. AstroPak has been in the business of cleaning mechanical parts for oxygen service for many years. The CPP students got to see each step of the process and learned the importance of maintaining this cleanliness throughout operations. Nearly all liquid rocket projects have decided to use liquid oxygen which has it’s own challenges to meet. Studying and keeping good cleanliness practices is paramount to avoiding catastrophe.

Chris Lujan and Frank Miuccio establish the link to bring in Richard Garcia, our director of research into the meeting.

We also were happy to have our director of research, Richard Garcia, calling into the meeting. Frank Miuccio and Chris Lujan have been very helpful in establishing a call-in number for some of our former and current members to call in when they are away from the city. We hope to have more of our membership calling in so that they may remain informed and active with their membership in the society. As per our tradition, we always value those making the trip to visit us in person.

After calling the meeting to order, and the reading of the treasury report, we covered our agenda items. We covered nearly all of our agenda and had time for special presentation from two members of Long Beach Rocketry at California State University Long Beach (CSULB). The purpose of their visit was to introduce themselves to the RRS.

CSU Long Beach presenters with their latest prototype on display at the December 2019 meeting of the RRS.
Frank Chandler sits at the table next to the Long Beach Rocketry team’s next assembly on display at the December meeting of the RRS.

Corey Fraga and Dan Dao gave us a short presentation of their team and some of their recent accomplishments. Their solid motor rocket project started in 2015 and has done well in recent competitions including the NASA University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) taking fifth place among a long list of worthy competitors. They also brought their most recent prototype vehicle which has a quadricopter drone built into the cargo bay. After the rocket completes its flight and gently touches down from its parachute recovery system, the cargo bay opens from an electric motor driven mechanism which allows the drone to take off and survey the landing site. The idea is to create a system that could be useful in planetary exploration or even in remote or dangerous areas here on Earth.

CSU Long Beach (Corey Fraga, Dan Dao) makes their presentation on their latest competition at Huntsville, AL.

The Long Beach Rocketry group offered to give the RRS a tour of their lab facilities on campus. The RRS graciously accepted their invitation. We should hopefully announce a date soon for this event.

Corey Fraga and Dan Dao finish their presentation at the December meeting of the RRS.

[1] Results from the last MTA launch

The launch report from the December 7, 2019, event has already been posted. We had a successful event despite an earlier concern for bad weather. Thankfully, the rain fell early and had cleared by Saturday morning. We were able to get our equipment set up for the event, but the society needs to invest in a simple sumping pump in case we need to remove any standing water from our bunkers or other enclosed spaces that have failed to drain from a recent rain or flooding. We are thankful to our neighbors at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) for letting us borrow their sump pump.

Two students of 99th Street Elementary wait for the next launch in the RRS MTA observation bunker. Many of our observers could use something to stand a little higher to see better.

I also noticed that we could use a few more cinder blocks in the blockhouse. Many of our students are too short to see over the wall and the few blocks we already have are not enough. The RRS should buy a few more cinder blocks and possibly make some standing benches to help our students see their hard work better from the safety of the observation bunker.

An RRS standard alpha takes off into the moist air of December at the MTA.

Another observation made was the students from the neighboring Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) site were often seen walking around too close to the RRS launching site as we were conducting road and air checks for our alpha rocket launches. It appeared that they were searching to recover their rocket from their prior flight, but we aborted three different countdowns due to car movements seen, or people crossing by on the north road adjacent to our property, and even one oblivious individual who was walking downrange of our own RRS MTA launch site as we were in the count!. The RRS and FAR must better coordinate our launch and recovery protocols respecting each others’ boundaries if only for the safety of all people concerned.

FAR and the RRS often conduct events on the same day and since our societies are sharing the launch areas and have many common interests, the RRS will work with FAR to find the best approach to assure safety and smooth operations for all.

[2] Next events at the MTA

Frank Miuccio is already working on the next event with LAPD CSP. The program will likely have its first class possibly on the Friday after the Martin Luther King holiday. Five to six weeks later means that the launch event could take place in late February or early March 2020.

I’ve been planning a launch event at the RRS Mojave Test Area (MTA) much sooner than that. For too many years, the RRS MTA sits empty in January and February for no good reason. I sought to undo this trend by holding an event just with our membership the way that our society used to operate.

At first, I was able to confirm Wolfram Blume who wants to fly his booster and ramjet upper stage system, if only for a system test of his booster, staging mechanism and recovery system. The ramjet upper stage will not be fired and will be loaded with an equivalent weight of water in its gasoline fuel tank to get the correct balance of the final vehicle. It’s a bit of risk to fly the actual ramjet prototype but there is no better way to get the right aerodynamics. It should be a good test and with luck his systems all pass the first flight test at the RRS MTA.

Larry and I have been talking about integrating a commercial hybrid motor into his 38mm fiberglass rocket. If I can acquire the motor parts, Larry will help me get the recovery system and the rest of the motor mounting complete. This will be the first hybrid motor launch from the RRS MTA in a very long time.

Also, John Krell voiced his interest in re-flying his improved avionics payload in an RRS standard alpha. This one will have an expanded accelerometer range to catch the ultra-fast burn of the alpha. He’s working on improving the data rate as recent open-source software changes have downgrading the sampling by half for some inexplicable reason.

CSULB’s Long Beach Rocketry team, (left to right) Corey Fraga and Dan Dao, Frank Chandler (CPP) and John Krell at the December meeting of the RRS

Brian Johnson and Bill Behenna each have avionics packages in development. The RRS has plenty of alpha boosters ready if members can get their payloads integrated into a suitable payload tube in time. We hope to confirm the launch manifest by New Year’s Day so I am hopeful we will have a fun launch day on January 18, 2020. We have also spread the word to our university project teams that the RRS MTA will be open for testing or flights if they can be ready on this date early in the year. The RRS encourages all teams to plan ahead and test early and often to assure their later success.

[3] Progress on the 2020 RRS symposium

Frank Miuccio, our vice president and symposium coordinator, has had some difficulties in confirming the symposium date, but we are hopeful that the April 18, 2020 will be the symposium date. We also may have the option for April 25, 2020. The Ken Nakaoka Community Center of Gardena will hopefully confirm the date for our symposium Monday.

The Long Beach Rocketry group and the Compton College STEM club have both indicated their interest in presenting or exhibiting at the 2020 RRS symposium. In many cases, it can be first come, first serve. This will be the fourth symposium in a row for us and we hope to continue the momentum we’ve built. I have a few government and private companies in mind to give us a great slate of speakers. We just need to confirm the symposium date.

[4] Treasurer’s report on the membership roster, dues payment policy change

Chris Lujan has been surveying the sign-up sheets from past months over recent years to help establish who has been attending meetings and how often. Active membership requires participation in the society as it does with any group. Attending monthly meetings is not the only means of staying active as attending launch events or participating in outside events also qualifies. The RRS is working on building a firm definition to make clear when a member is or is not active. This is important as our Constitution requires both an administrative membership class AND active membership to retain voting rights. Each year, we try to reach our past and present members but without effort on the member’s part to keep their information current, our elections and voting on important measures must go on without them. Contacting any member of the RRS executive council is the best way to keep the society updated on your whereabouts and contact information.. The membership roster is managed by the RRS treasurer.

Chris is also working up some percentages for how many of our active membership are current with their dues payment. Initial estimates are encouraging, but since we have many new members who paid upon their induction, these high percentages make sense. It is our longer term members who are often neglecting their duty to keep their dues paid each year. Dues payment is also an essential element of membership.

The executive council has voted a policy change to when dues are to be paid. Effective immediately, all dues payments must be made by January 1st of each calendar year. I was glad that the society has supported this firm fixed date which makes accounting for dues much easier on our treasurer. The membership roster will also track dues payment and active membership status. For the several lifetime members in the society, this past membership class will remain and dues payment is not required for these persons, however, remaining active with the society is still a requirement to keep voting rights.

[5] 2020 Constitutional Committee report

Frank Miuccio was able to report that the 2020 Constitutional Committee has met a couple of times in the last two months and is reviewing the last page of the new draft. The committee will present its draft to the executive council at year’s end. The executive council will review the draft before presenting it to our administrative membership for consideration and a subsequent two-thirds ratification vote.

[6] Social media updates

Our social media coordinators were both not in attendance in December. The RRS continues to be active on Instagram. Our Facebook page needs some management. The RRS is also looking at trying to build a calendar feature on the RRS.ORG website to better announce events.

The RRS continues to use WordPress for its ease of use and simplicity, but the society has been considering reformatting and restyling our page or at least re-organizing the menu options to make finding common things easier. This will be a task for the new RRS secretary.

[7] CSFM committee on amateur rocketry

The California State Fire Marshal’s (CSFM) office has been holding hearings with the broader pyrotechnic operator’s community throughout the state this year. Most of the community is made up of the fireworks and special effects community. Amateur rocketry is a smaller and separate group which has our own interests we operate very differently from the other larger groups.

The RRS (Larry Hoffing), ROC (Chris Kobel) and FAR (Mark Holthaus) discuss a collective list of proposed changes to CSFM definitions governing amateur rocketry on 12/04/2019.

Mark Holthaus of FAR has been reviewing the definitions pages of the California laws relevant to amateur rocketry. The RRS and FAR have met on three different occasions in the last two months. The RRS has found FAR’s proposed changes to be very reasonable and accurately reflect how we can continue to operate safely. We have also included feedback from members of the Rocketry Organization of California (ROC) at the last two meetings. David Reese of ROC has been particularly helpful in improving and clarifying the language which governs our hobby and we are also grateful for his assistance.

Mark has made arrangements to discuss our proposed changes with the CSFM office on Monday, December 16th. We hope this informal meeting goes well and that all of our recommendations can be implemented which will assure both safety and legal operations for our groups. Some of the amateur rocketry groups are not national organizations and would be harmed by excessive regulation from the state. The CSFM office has been very welcoming and open to ideas thus far. CSFM has not often held these kinds of reviews and the RRS recognizes the great opportunity we’ve had to help shape policy for everyone in rocketry in California.

[8] RRS executive council election results for 2020

Larry Hoffing, our appointed election chairman for this annual election cycle, certified his results to the membership at our December 2019 meeting as required per our Constitution. Each officer was elected by unanimous vote. Our new executive council officers starting in January 1, 2020 are as follows:

Osvaldo Tarditti,

Frank Miuccio,

Drew Cortopassi,

Chris Lujan,

The RRS is grateful to our election chairman, Larry Hoffing, for fulfilling his duties to the society. The council will appoint a new chairman next November when we hold nominations for the next election cycle. The society is thankful to our new and returning officers who have stepped up to serve the society for this next exciting year, 2020.

[9] Proposed RRS MTA standard fee schedule

The RRS has become increasingly active with more and more requests to use our Mojave Test Area (MTA). This is a very good thing, but often scheduling of hot-fire events has become excessively chaotic. The RRS understands that sometimes things happen that can force cancellation of a planned event with little or no notice. Weather is often the main culprit of such things. However, as one who has participated in coordinating launch events at the MTA this year in conjunction with our RRS president, I have seen many occasions when poor planning is the only reason for a last minute cancellation. Worst yet, the society has also received far too many last minute requests for use of our site. The RRS is in the process of drafting a standard fee schedule which will explain the requirements for outside users of the MTA. The exact details of this forthcoming policy are still under discussion, but the following is some of the ideas that were discussed.

The RRS is happy to help as many organizations as we can, but our customers must understand that:

(1) We are a volunteer society. Few, if any, of us are paid for the substantial time and resources spent to make these events possible. While we often generously donate our time to support and promote these events, the society needs money to operate and improve our site and this must come from charging fees to pay for repairs improvement projects. A standard fee schedule will be drafted, reviewed and approved by the society before the end of the year.

(2) We operate the RRS MTA by APPOINTMENT ONLY! There is no sign-up calendar like what is used by other amateur rocketry organizations such as FAR. We operate in this fashion because we stress the importance of advanced planning. Last minute requests for using the MTA site will very likely be rejected. Rocketry is a dangerous hobby and the importance of careful preparation is reflected in the desire of the RRS to accept only advance notification for all proposed projects. This not only makes planning events easier for all parties, but it makes them safer. Contact the RRS president for all requests to use the RRS MTA.

(3) Our indemnification forms are required to be signed and submitted by ALL PERSONS well in advance of attending the event. This includes spectators, spouses, significant others, and children. This has been standing policy at the RRS MTA and will remain so. Just showing up at our MTA site on the day of the event is NOT acceptable and people will be turned away if our policies are not respected.

(4) We expect several weeks advance notice to conduct a thorough review of each new project. This means that all groups must have their operating procedures, checklists, drawings, schematics already prepared for the pyro-op’s review when the request is submitted.well in advance of the requested event date. Expecting the pyro-op to examine your intended test article and procedures for the project only on the day of the event upon their arrival is NOT REASONABLE.

Events at the MTA will be conducted with a pyro-op appointed by the RRS. Our pyro-op should have had the opportunity to see everything well planned and well in advance. Attending RRS monthly meetings is an excellent way for potential users to familiarize themselves with the society and our expectations. Submitting your project description on an RRS standard record form a month in advance and was formerly policy at the RRS. Everyone must understand that the pyro-op in charge can refuse any test at any time for any reason making your journey out to the MTA all for naught.

Based on an accumulation of both good and bad experiences, I will undertake a project to draft an official RRS policy on testing at the MTA for our outside customers that will take affect on January 1, 2020. I was glad to get a lot of feedback from potential customers and other members at the December meeting. To our society members, please send me your feedback soon as I will be working this policy out in the next two weeks before the executive council approves it.

The RRS will begin charging standard daily fees for use of the MTA site and charging a separate daily fee for the pyrotechnic operator in charge at this event. Pricing may vary with private companies and universities, but in all cases, fees are expected to be paid before approval of the event is given by the RRS. Cancellations within two weeks of the event will result in forfeiture of all of those fees for that event date and new fees must be paid again for a new test date. When customers stand to lose their fees if they fail to deliver on their commitments to the RRS, they will better understand the importance of managing their projects better as they must now avoid the cost of cancellations. Other groups, both amateur and professional organizations, operate successfully with these kinds of policies and the RRS will be enforcing their own policies soon.

[10] Review of the Gas Guzzler ramjet project

Wolfram Blume and his wife were kind enough to stop by the December RRS meeting bringing his booster rocket for one more inspection. I will be the pyro-op in charge of his first test flight on 1/18/2020 and I wanted a closer look at how secure and stiff his fins were. Based on my inspection, his booster looks ready for rail launch. With luck, his staging and recovery systems will function without issue. Wolfram has borrowed from prior successful designs flown at ROC events in Lucerne Valley. The RRS is glad to assist him with this ambitious project.

Wolfram Blume stands with his booster used on the Gas Guzzler project.

[11] Solid propellant making classes

The RRS was approached about restarting our composite grain propellant making classes at the RRS MTA. After some careful assessment of our equipment, resources and available personnel, the RRS is not yet ready to offer these classes again. Twenty years ago, the society held a few of these solid motor building classes which became very popular. The RRS is building back our capabilities and this will take some time.

The Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) has offered similar classes at their site and for the time being, the RRS must refer interested parties to them.

[12] SuperDosa project update

The SuperDosa project was established two years ago with the intent of the RRS restarting our large solid motor building skills to progressively build larger vehicles able to not only breach the von Karman line (100 km ASL), but surpass the current amateur rocketry altitude record holder. Despite our increasing membership, we have not had much progress to date. Given my commitments to several liquid rocket projects, I am handing over my leadership duties to Drew Sherman. Drew is a founder of Leo Aerospace and also an active RRS member. His interests very much align with this project and with the combined resources of others in the society building high powered motors, we hope that Drew can continue this project to its lofty goal of bringing the title back to the Reaction Research Society.

[13] RRS MTA facility improvements

Osvaldo Tarditti, our society president, continues to lead our MTA facility improvement projects, chief among those is improving our bathroom facilities at the site. Osvaldo has drafted plans for an improved bathroom facility at our remote RRS MTA site. The RRS will be soliciting bids from local contractors soon and we hope to commence this important improvement at the MTA sometime this spring and complete by the summer. The society has nearly enough funds for this project, but we are hoping to receive a few more thousand dollars to initiate this project sooner than later.

Also on our list of improvements is a blockhouse replacement, horizontal mounting plate at our testing area to create a regular interface pattern for future users rather than continue the unregulated drilling of anchor bolts (and the hated “male” variety of these anchor bolts) into our concrete slab. RRS members, Dmitri Timohovich and Wilbur Owens have been supporting the society on this improvement as it will require heavy equipment to place and secure this trench plate at the RRS MTA.

Larry Hoffing has recognized that the society will soon need a second 40-foot container for storage. We will be acquiring some new solid propellant mixing equipment and we need to rearrange our inventory in a more organized and accessible fashion. Whether this comes in the form of a new container on our MTA site or possibly one given to us from our site tenant, Polaris Propulsion Inc., remains to be seen. The society will continue to monitor progress and set goals to complete these tasks.


This will be my last monthly report as I am stepping down as secretary of the RRS. I have enjoyed serving in this role for the last three years, but it is time for me to allow a new secretary to lend his voice to you, our readers. I will remain active with the society, but only as a member engaged in many projects around the society. The society grows as we bring new members in and the society gets new ideas. It is also important that we also get new leadership from time to time. I hope to see more of our new administrative membership step up for these executive council roles in the future. There is no better way to help the society than with service.

As my last parting comment, I would encourage ALL of our membership to write and submit articles. The RRS.ORG website is one of the best ways we educate and inform the public about the things that interest the society in rocketry. Even simple academic subjects are excellent ideas. Next year, you may see a couple articles from me, but I want to encourage all of our membership to do more than just mention ideas in conversations, but write them down, text them, email them, convey them to the RRS secretary. It is the job of the RRS secretary to be the chief editor and means of publication for our membership. Past articles are welcome as we have re-printed ones from our long past. We also heartily welcome new content. Any time is a good time to submit.

Our next meeting will be held January 10, 2020, at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center at 7:30PM. If there are questions or corrections, please notify the RRS secretary. After January 1, this will be Drew Cortopassi.

With gracious thanks to the society, I hope to see everyone in the new year.

Group photo taken at the end of the December 13, 2019 meeting of the RRS in Gardena.

Launching Rockets – Adventures at Spaceport America

by RRS member, Joseph Maydell

It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. My flight was experiencing rough turbulence as it flew over the mountains on final approach to El Paso, TX. I was traveling to Spaceport America as a sponsor on four upcoming space-shot attempts. After collecting my luggage, I picked up my rental truck and headed north on the two-hour drive to Spaceport America. The only other way to access Spaceport America is to fly into Albuquerque and make the three-hour drive south. I had decided to fly into El Paso to save some time. Texas had actually been my home ten years earlier while working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as an International Space Station (ISS) flight controller.

Getting through security earlier that day had been an adventure. My carry-on only contained mission critical hardware and was flagged for inspection. Everyone in the security line stared as TSA agents pulled antennas, circuit boards, a soldering iron, hot air rework station, trays of SMT (surface mount) components, wiring, ground control units, and weather balloon inflation equipment out of my carry-on. Everything was thoroughly swabbed for explosive residue and a lot of questions were asked.

The reason I had been asked to sponsor the next four launches at Spaceport America was because I had led the development of a new set of avionics for professional rocketry. It consists of a flight computer called the Eagle and a handheld ground control station. It was developed as part of a program for safely launching and recovering rockoons. It has the ability to launch, stage, and recover a multi-stage rocket as well as other proprietary features unique to rockoon flight. It has a very accurate barometric sensor and an aviation-grade inertial measurement unit (IMU). However, what space-shot teams find especially appealing is the global positioning system (GPS) receiver that can obtain GPS lock at any altitude.

The first launch was set for Monday morning at 6:00 AM. The rocket was a two-stage rocket built by Coleman Merchant from Princeton University as part of his master’s thesis.

It had the energy and propellant mass fraction to easily pierce the von Karman line (100 km of altitude). A group of cadets from West Point were also on site to assemble and align the launch rail on loan from Kevin Sagis, Virgin Orbit’s chief engineer. My responsibility, in addition to monitoring the health of the Eagle avionics package, was to launch weather balloons in the hours leading up to the rocket launch. This was critical for obtaining the upper level winds for calculating the firing solution. In the coming week, I would be launching a new type of radiosonde I had developed that would help lower the cost of obtaining upper level wind analysis prior to rocket flights.

Two rockets made by Coleman Merchant at the Princeton Rocket Laboratory

At 3:30 AM Monday morning, the team assembled for final launch preparations. Radiosonde operations were going well. Preparations at the launch site were also progressing smoothly. However, there were concerns that the brackets used to bolt the 1010 launch rail to the main launch rail structure could make contact with the carbon fiber fins on the booster during launch. This hadn’t been apparent earlier since the launch rail was still being prepared the previous day. The decision was wisely made to delay the launch. An hour later, all the brackets had been trimmed using a hacksaw.

Launch preparations would typically begin at 3:30AM

After aligning the launch rail with the final firing solution obtained from my radiosonde data, the rocket was armed. We all moved to Mission Control to complete final checks. This is when we discovered another technical issue. Since so many electronics, transmitting at various frequencies, were crammed into the nosecone, and since the nosecone was in such close proximity to the large launch rail structure, it was taking longer for the electronics to obtain GPS lock. We had done a radio-frequency (RF) test of the avionics package with all electronics running the previous day, including GPS lock testing, but not on the launch rail since it was still being assembled. It took about five minutes, but eventually all electronics with GPS receivers had GPS lock. After getting a “go” from White Sands and Spaceport America, the final countdown resumed and Chase Lewis, the West Point pyro-lead, sent the signal that launched Coleman’s rocket.

Coleman’s rocket accelerating off the pad at 46 G’s

Even from a mile away, it was difficult for the eye to catch it as it accelerated off on its way to space. Acceleration during boost reached 46 g. At booster burnout, the rocket was traveling Mach 2.4. A charge fired which separated the sustainer from the booster. A few seconds later, the sustainer engine fired and the sustainer once again experienced a peak acceleration of 46 g along its X (vertical) axis. However, as speeds approached Mach 3.8, the rocket became unstable and began to fly in a large upward spiral. Acceleration on both the Y and Z axis, which should ideally be zero, hit 42 g. Somehow the rocket managed to hold together before exiting the earth’s atmosphere at which point all acceleration loads went to zero. A few minutes later, the rocket re-entered the earths’ atmosphere under drogue. The booster had landed much earlier. It didn’t have any electronics and its recovery method was ballistic.

The booster recovery method was simple ballistics. Someone stumbled upon it a couple of weeks later.

After analyzing the data recorded by my avionics system (there were two altimeters by a different vendor but we couldn’t access the data), the leading theory for the upward spiral was inertial roll coupling. This is an aerodynamic phenomenon that can happen to both rockets and high-speed aircraft at a critical roll rate. Symptoms include divergence of angle of attack, large side-slip angle, and violent accelerations and loads. Air-frames with a low roll moment of inertia are particularly prone.

We still had one more launch window the following day. The decision was made to launch the second rocket and see if the problem repeated itself. No two rockets have the same roll rate due to tolerances in fin can and nozzle manufacturing processes. The hope was that the second stage would either stay below or above the critical roll rate during sustainer engine burn.

The launch window for Tuesday had also been scheduled from 6:00 to 10:00 AM. However, White Sands Missile Range informed us shortly before 6:00 AM that our launch window would close at 6:35 AM. This was unexpected and placed a lot of pressure on the team as we prepared the second rocket for launch. The rocket was armed just a few minutes before the launch window would close and we didn’t have time to allow the electronics to acquire GPS lock. The decision was made to launch with the hope GPS lock would be acquired during flight away from the interference caused by the launch rail. The booster once again flew flawlessly, but the sustainer never ignited. It coasted up to 19.7 km (64,600 ft) before coming back down under drogue. None of the electronics obtained GPS lock during the flight. The chance of us ever finding the sustainer and determining why its engine never ignited seemed unlikely. In the distance, we watched a missile soar into space over White Sands Missile Range. Now we knew why our launch window had been cut short.

I knew my avionics system had line-of-sight range, so in theory, as long and I could get my hand-held ground station high enough above the terrain, I would be able to receive telemetry. One idea I had was to mount my handheld ground unit to the top of the launch rail. We lowered the hydraulically-actuated launch rail and taped my ground control unit to the tip before raising it back up. The ground control unit was now sitting 40 feet above the desert. We lowered it a few minutes later and were disappointed to see that the ground controller had not logged any telemetry packets. This meant the rocket had to be in a gully or valley at a distance greater than a few miles. The next idea I had was to drive back and forth across Spaceport America along the expected flight path. I knew that if I came within a mile or two of Coleman’s rocket, I would receive packets and we could then locate the rocket. After driving for about an hour down some very rough roads, my ground controller started to log packets. An hour later we all hiked out to the sustainer which was lying in a valley. The sustainer was very close to where the booster had actually been targeted to impact as calculated by the upper wind analysis and firing angle solution.

On the drive back from the recovery area, I got a flat tire from an old fence-post nail. I tried to speed up through the cloud of dust from the truck in front of me to flag for help, but once my rim was hitting the ground I had to stop. I could have been out there for hours by myself if I hadn’t been able to break the lug nuts free with the inadequately short tire wrench I found under the truck’s passenger seat. Fortunately, I did make sure I had plenty of water, snacks, first aid kit etc., before heading out to try to find the sustainer.

So what went wrong on Coleman’s second space-shot attempt? It appears both altimeters rebooted when they fired the booster/sustainer separation charges. Because they were both rebooting, neither one fired the sustainer igniter. Since Coleman had only reached out to me two weeks earlier about integrating my avionics package into his rocket, my system hadn’t been approved by Spaceport America for initiating any flight events on his rocket. All it could do was go along for the ride while saving and transmitting flight data.

Coleman’s rockets had both flown amazingly well. The first space shot had come amazingly close to space. You could tell that a lot of experience and engineering analysis went into the design of his two rockets. I asked Coleman what he enjoyed most about the project:

“After spending months, coming out with a really nice final product that you are really proud of. Everything on this came out exactly the way I wanted it to. I don’t really have any regrets about how it was made.”

They truly were both impressive rockets. I asked Coleman what his biggest takeaway was:

“Spend more time on the electronics than you think you should. Don’t leave it until the last minute. It’s almost the most important part of the rocket. It’s something a lot of teams get wrong. They’re so focused on making sure it won’t rip apart.”

As an avionics systems developer, I couldn’t agree more. Coleman flew home and I had to start preparing for the next two space-shot attempts with Operation Space.

Operation Space was a project started by 18-year-old Joshua Farahzad. It was collaboration of students from multiple universities that had joined forces through the internet to design and build a space-capable two-stage launch vehicle. They had reached out to me a few months earlier about sponsoring their space-shot attempt and flying my avionics package into space on their rocket. I saw it as an opportunity to get additional testing and data on the Eagle system. Test it they did, in ways I could have never imagined!

The first launch attempt was scheduled for Thursday morning at 6:00 AM. However, assembly of the first rocket wasn’t completed until late Thursday afternoon. Parts designed and manufactured in different parts of the country didn’t fit together the way they were expected to fit. Last minute modifications were required including additional machining of fins and other critical components. The avionics bay was completely redesigned on Wednesday and rebuilt on Thursday. The first deployment test didn’t occur until Thursday evening.

Friday morning, after 48 hours of round-the-clock work, the first rocket was finally on the launch rail. Chase once again sent the signal that ignited the first stage. Everything went well until the sustainer engine ignited. It was obvious from the smoke trail that the sustainer had gone completely unstable. Once it landed, we lost all communication. Our search in the desert for the sustainer at the last received GPS coordinates proved futile. At the time the leading theory was that the sustainer had lost one of its fins.

The second rocket was launched Saturday morning. Its flight path also went unstable about two seconds after sustainer ignition. It also abruptly stopped transmitting all data once it landed. Once again, we went out to the last received GPS location. We never found the sustainer. However, to our surprise we did find the avionics bay with a short length of parachute tether and a wad of carbon fibers from the nose cone. When it hit the ground the battery tray inside broke loose and crushed my avionics system. Most of the SMT components had popped off the motherboard. Fortunately, the avionics bay was in a clearing only a few feet from where I had received the last packet during flight. Otherwise, we may have never found it since there was a lot of thick brush and we were all looking for a large rocket. We could have easily overlooked the small avionics bay hidden in a thicket. This is probably what had happened when we searched for the first sustainer the previous day. We had been warned not to poke around in the bushes because of the rattle snakes. We hadn’t considered looking for something as small as an avionics bay.

Chase Lewis inspecting the interstage of the Operation Space rocket.

Once we returned to Mission Control, I was able to solder the SMT memory chip to a good Eagle motherboard using my hot air rework station. This made it possible to download the flight data. This is what the flight data revealed: two seconds after sustainer engine ignition, the rocket started to go unstable and then it drastically altered its angle of attack. One tenth of a second later, the avionics bay separated from the rest of the rocket. It did a 180-degree turn and coasted backwards to an altitude of 15.5 km (51,000 ft) with the parachute tether trailing behind it before coming back down. Most likely, aerodynamic loads at Mach 3.5 caused the carbon fiber nosecone to fail. This released the drogue which was housed inside the nosecone. The force of the drogue opening and shredding broke the altimeter bay free from the rest of the rocket. Later, I learned that the nosecones had a major manufacturing defect. There wasn’t enough time to manufacture new nosecones and those who knew about the issue had hoped for the best.

The avionics bay from the second Operation Space launch as we found it. Notice the black wad of carbon fiber presumably from the nosecone shoulder.

The Operation Space Team put in a lot of effort to reach space. It was disappointing to see them only reach 15.5 km. However, I have no doubt that with more experience, an improved design, and better preparation, they can be successful. They had a lot of fun, worked well together, and certainly learned many lessons. One in particular that I would like to emphasize:

You should never underestimate the amount of time, effort, and diligence required for successful space flight. Among other things it requires thorough engineering analysis, diligent acceptance testing of all manufactured parts, exhaustive vehicle integration testing, and well-written operation procedures.

It was now Saturday afternoon. After downloading the flight data, I left Spaceport America with just enough time to drive back to El Paso and catch my flight. I only had one concern. With all the work helping Operation Space machine, wire, assemble, test, and prep their two rockets, I never did get my flat tire fixed. I was on my cellphone telling my wife how excited I was to see her and the kids that evening when a warning light went off. My adventures were not over: I had another flat tire!

About the author

Joseph Maydell has over a decade of both space flight and high-altitude ballooning experience. He is a former ISS Flight Controller and NASA spacecraft systems instructor. He has started multiple successful aerospace businesses and is passionate about inspiring students to pursue careers in space exploration. If you have any questions or comments, you can reach me here.