Saturday, August 2, 2014


Last week, my family and I attended NARAM 56 in Pueblo, CO. This was my first time attending any national rocketry event, so I wanted to record my impressions, as well as any advice for other future first-timers.

First I should make it clear why I went:

  1. The first reason was to watch the ULA intern rocket launches. How could watching the launch of a 25 foot tall rocket not be cool?
  2. I've never been to a club launch other than CRASH, which does non-waivered launches, so this would be a neat opportunity to see some bigger stuff fly.
  3. I decided to do my L1 certification attempt.
  4. And finally, I went for the fun of being around lots of other rocket geeks (and vendors).
One thing I've come to realize, which perhaps should have been obvious from the name of the event, is that much of the focus is about competitions (the AM in NARAM is for "Annual Meet", after all). I've never really been into official competitions (rocketry or otherwise), so that's not really my thing. Nevertheless, the sport range was set to be open all week, and there were nightly events at the hotel, so I knew there would be lots to do.

The ULA Launch

One interesting point to make here is that there is really no link between NARAM in general and the ULA launch. AFAIK, the ULA launch happens at the SCORE site in Pueblo every year, and it just happened to coincide with NARAM 56 being there this year. While the ULA launches were a big draw and focal point of the first day of NARAM 56, I'll note two things: First, the ULA page describing the 2014 launches says NOTHING about the NAR, NARAM, or SCORE (while the reverse is not true - the NARAM 56 site does have info about the ULA launches). Second, the ULA interns I spoke to seemed correspondingly uninterested in the NAR and NARAM. They were there on Saturday, did their launches, and then were gone. The few that my wife and I spoke to, even at their information booth, were definitely not there to promote any sort of NAR involvement. To be frank - and to be fair, maybe this was just the handful of interns we spoke with - they didn't seem interested in promoting anything, including ULA. They were pretty wrapped up in themselves. Maybe that's just college kids for you.

Nevertheless, it was pretty cool to watch the launches. Since two out of three of them are O class rockets, we had to be about 2000 feet away. But still, really cool to see. Big, bright, smokey, and LOUD. I'd definitely make the two hour drive down to Pueblo just to see this again.

Here are a few points of advice for first timers if you ever go to see these:
  • Before you go, check out the ULA site for event details. I'd only looked for info on the NARAM 56 site, which didn't have as much of the schedule detail as the ULA site did. So I didn't know the specific launch schedule until we arrived that morning.
  • Get there early, not just to stake out a viewing spot, but to get a close-up look at the rockets. They only allow this for a one-hour window in the morning, and you have to factor in time for the 3/4 mile round trip walk to do this (a big consideration if, like us, you have little kids with you).
  • Bring some sort of sunshade. This year, the launches were scheduled for 10:00, 11:00, and 12:00, but they were somewhat delayed (and I gather that happens for one reason or another every year). 
  • Bring a portable FM radio. We got there late enough that we had to set ourselves a good distance from the PA area. While there's not a bad seat in the house for viewing the launches, we could barely hear the PA, and almost missed one launch because we couldn't hear the countdown. If you get there early enough to stake out a good spot, this won't be an issue. But apparently they were broadcasting the PA on a localized FM frequency as well.
  • As you're hanging out waiting for the launches, chat up your neighbors. Many of the people there to observe have some sort of connection to the project, so you never know what you might learn. We happened to be sitting by a retired ULA engineer who's been an advisor on the project for five years, and also the parents of an intern who built one of the payloads.

Stars 'n'Stripes shortly before launch.

Stars 'n'Stripes goes up.

Recovery of the booster stage of Future. These guys were hot and tired after a long walk.

Hanging out at NARAM in general
  • Sport Launching: We had a great time doing this. It was crowded on the weekend, but from Monday on was low-key. So cool to just be there and see all the rockets and all the flights. Many big rockets (up through M class), many odd rocs. Of course, everyone is happy to talk about their rockets, your rockets, and whatever else. We met a ton of really nice people. Bring a big sunshade and table and set up your spot.
  • Vendors: No vendors ever set up at the hotel, although a room was available for them to if they wanted. There were a whole lot of them at the sport range, but that started to thin out after the weekend (though there was always at least someone selling motors). I never noted anyone offering any special deals for the event (other than 10% off of your next web order or something to that effect). 
  • The competitions: As I said, I'm not really a competitor. But since registration included participation in one event for free, I decided to enter the 160m set altitude comp just to see what it was like (I happen to have one rocket that I've flown with an altimeter that hits within 10m of that fairly reliably). Short story: I don't plan to become more of a competitor in the future. These folks take this very seriously. If you're a newcomer to this, read and understand the Pink Book so you know the process, because (in my limited experience) people at the event were not entirely patient with newbs who don't know the process, and don't have the time, willingness, or people skills to speak the two or three sentences that might make clear what you need to do next. Overall, I find sport launching a lot more fun that the competitions.

Everything Else

There was always something going on in the evenings: viewing rockets submitted for the "fun event" competitions (as well as "real" comps), viewing of prang videos (a scheduled night launch was canceled due to weather), a fundraising auction, etc. This stuff was all neat to see, and another great chance to mingle and chat with other rocket buffs. As I mentioned before, we met so many nice and interesting people.

Final Thoughts

It was a great time. We all enjoyed it - even my wife, who is not really a "rocket person." It was a great chance to get more involved in the hobby, meet people, see some interesting things people have done,  and also feel my way around what specific areas of it interest me most (HPR- yes, competitions - no). While I don't know that I'd go any further than a few hours' drive for another such event in the future, it does make me want to become more involved with my local NAR sections.

HPR L1 - part three - (Successful!) Certification

The start date for NARAM 56 finally arrived (I plan to write another post with my impressions) and we made our way down to Pueblo. On the advice of one of the NAR board members I met at check-in, we spent Saturday just watching the ULA launches and "enjoying the festivities", and had a relaxing day Sunday doing a bit of low power sport launching of our own. I planned to try for certification on Monday, when the sport range would be much more low-key.

The only drawback to this was that over the course of the weekend, I witnessed about a dozen other certification attempts, three or four of which were unsuccessful (including an L2 attempt that blew to pieces a few hundred feet up). That didn't exactly bolster my confidence, but on the other hand, I'd done my homework and was confident in my build and planning.

The weather on Monday was slightly windy, but otherwise good. As soon as we got to the field, I began my prep, loading up a 38mm Cesaroni H120 Red Lightning motor and preparing my payload. In addition to my own data logger, I also included my Jolly Logic 2 altimeter. (Actually my new Jolly Logic. I'd lost my old one the previous day when it came detached from my Mozzie, presumably at ejection. Two zip ties to attach it, from now on.)

The certification process was exactly as I think it should be. Steve Lubliner of SARA (Tuscon) did my cert. He was friendly, and - more importantly - thorough. He checked out the rocket, asked me several questions about the build, and sent me out to the pad. One small comment - "Nice build" - boosted my confidence immensely.

My kids were out there with me to help as I loaded the rocket onto the pad, and my wife took photos. Then there were many agonizing minutes spent waiting for my turn for launch. I was fortunate to have the moral support of family and new friends as I paced about.

Finally - countdown and liftoff! I honestly couldn't have asked for a better flight. Straight up, flawless recovery system deployment (I used motor ejection - no need to complicate things on a cert attempt - plenty of opportunity to get fancy later), and soft touchdown in the field about 100 meters away from the pad.

Loading it onto the rail.

This photo is actually from the second flight (on Tuesday) using a CTI H123 Skidmark motor. Less total impulse, but it makes for a better photo :)

Launch video - also on the Skidmark motor. The camera got bumped and we missed video of the cert flight.

One other change I made to the standard kit: I swapped the 36" flat chute for a 36" elliptical Fruity Chute. Expensive, but I think it lowered the descent rate to a much more acceptable 19 fps (compared to an estimated 28 fps with the stock chute).

Recovery team.

Final inspection and "welcome to high power."

A plot from the data off of my data logger. Two interesting things: First, the GPS seems like it wasn't able to keep up during the quick boost phase, which didn't surprise me. Second, the barometric pressure sensor reported a height about 16% hight than either the GPS or the Jolly Logic altimeter. The accelerometer also reported a peak acceleration slightly higher than the Jolly Logic. But otherwise the data looks as I expect it would. It will take more analysis and testing before I can decide what to trust.

Flight Stats (from the Jolly Logic)
  • Height (AGL): 1449 ft
  • Top Speed: 223 mph
  • Peak/Average Acceleration: 6.6/5.5 G
  • Thrust duration: 1.85 s (seems low compared to the motor thrust curve)
  • Coast to Apogee: 8.3 s
  • Apogee to Ejection: 1.0 s
  • Descent Rate: 13mph
  • Total Duration: 82.5 s

Final Thoughts

I'd like to say that I learned something from the certification process, but that's really not the case. The cert was almost a formality. The learning was all in the advance prep and research. Here would be my advice to anyone else pursuing L1:
  1. Don't get ahead of yourself. Learn the hobby and don't skip steps. Become proficient with low power and mid power first. There is a lot to learn along the way.
  2. Keep it simple. Go with a solid, basic kit and motor ejection. I also chose Cesaroni reloads since they are so much simpler to use than Aerotech.
  3. An absolute must: use simulation software - OpenRocket (my choice) or RockSim. I used this to determine CP/stability, descent rate (and proper parachute choice), and ejection delay.