BALLS participants ready to burn cash.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
When evil "W" blows in launches are put on hold.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
Our prototype in OpenRocket.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
Bottom part looking good in Autodesk Inventor.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
Uh-oh. Back to the drawing board.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
Casing for a sensor 3D printed in black carbon. Took about an hour on top of CAD work.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
Major Tom at TechShop in San Francisco.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
Launching at the Playa means getting there early, often at night, so waking up surrounded by orange sand flats is (already) a part of our project.
courtesy TTSjogren, SOURCE
BALLS: What it Takes in (New) Space

Posted: Nov 09, 2015 08:51 am EST

(PythomLabs/TinaSjogren) The premier experimental rocket launch in the Continental US; veterans say BALLS is leading edge of non-professional rocketry and probably the largest event for non-professional rockets seen anywhere.


At this level, one single launch easily costs thousands of dollars just for the engine charge and some of the rocketeers have tinkered with their missiles for years.


Back at "the playa" at Black Rock Desert in Nevada for the third time in three months, we watched big money and great efforts literally blow up in smoke.


Showcasing latest technology and experimental motors, this event was beyond Everest - birds at BALLS soared to 100 thousand feet and more. For good reason organizers had to stay in contact with airports as far away as Vegas, San Francisco and Oregon.


Fail is Good


Considering the significance participants hauled/drove their rockets to the launch pads with surprising calm. People strolled, talked in low voices, had a sandwich.


Failure rate was around 50%. The day prior it was about 70%, boasted one BALLS rocketeer young gun.


Our biggest take away thus became two observations:

1. Waking up surrounded by sand flushed orange by a rising sun already seems an eerie part of our life.
2. People celebrating useful failure are cool.


BALLS players were big enough to fail publicly and spectacularly if needed. Thanks to them, we learned what the edge of rocketry looks like.


Rockets can trash in many ways. They can explode right on the launch pad. Or in mid-air. They can drift in the wrong direction, or neglect to unfurl the chute and drill a hole in the ground. 


Success comes down to guts, money, the right materials, proper packing, correct design, the optimal motor, some math - and - the weather.


Back in SF


Back in San Francisco with important lessons learned we are now preparing for level 2 certification, probably taking place this month, not sure yet where. The usual cattle ranch used for winter launches by our bay area club apparently needs a good down-pour before it's fire safe.


Originally wanting to 3D print, we first designed our next model in a rocket software for proper flight properties and then in Autodesk Inventor for the actual printing process. Compared to conventional manufacturing, building layer by layer from the bottom up requires a different kind of thinking and interesting advantages in terms of design.


Ultimately two things wrecked our plan.


Number one: Insane printing time. The slicing software evaluating our model predicted up to three days. Inquiries to have the rocket shop printed returned thousands of dollars in price estimates.


Then Mike (our rocket dealer/mentor) showed us a 3D printed PLA rocket with melted fins. Turned out that while printed rockets hold up to launches pretty well, they can't take the heat from simply laying around in the desert sun.


Just to get a feel of it we 3D printed a casing for a sensor. We used black carbon for better heat properties and the box held up surprisingly well even after days of baking in the windshield of our car. The printing time still unresolved though we resorted to plan B: build a bigger rocket by conventional means, hopefully reaching over 5000 ft this month.




As for the payload, we now get plenty of sensor readouts over Raspberry Pi, exporting the data to a database.


To describe this process in brief: Connecting electronics is fairly straightforward, just follow simple laws of physics. Getting various open source software to collaborate is untangling the sum of human f-ups and a completely different story.


Next step is to decide the best tech to transmit from the rocket during flight and, with all due respect to glorious failure, hopefully not crash and burn too often in the meantime.


Follow this project at Pythom Labs



Rocket launch: Level 1 Certificate

Rocket launch take 2: Kicking it up (Moffett Airfield)

Rocket launch in the desert (first rocket report)  

Mission to Mars: Stage 2 Report (space suit test)



Short story about the first manned rocket (not Russian)

Space Roundup final - the M word (2011)