Modal Title
Culture / Hardware / Science

One Man’s Dream to Build a Working SpaceX-Style Model Rocket

It took seven years for Joe Barnard to build a model rocket that replicated the vertical takeoffs and vertical landings of SpaceX's reusable first-stage Falcon 9s.
Sep 25th, 2022 6:00am by
Featued image for: One Man’s Dream to Build a Working SpaceX-Style Model Rocket

Earlier this year, somewhere in the Mojave desert, Joe Barnard finally experienced one giant leap for model rockets.

“I landed a rocket like SpaceX,” he explained in his video on YouTube.

And it only took him seven years…

In the video, Barnard tells the story of a dream that began in the fall of 2015. It was a heartfelt project with one simple goal: trying to replicate the vertical takeoff, vertical landing made famous by SpaceX’s reusable first-stage “Falcon 9” rockets.

It’s an inspiring example of a hobbyist pursuing their passion, in a project begun “not because it’s revolutionary or game-changing for model rocketry, but because it’s a really cool project,” Barnard says in the video. “And I knew I would learn a lot.

“And I did learn a lot.” He points viewers to years of videos, urging them to “see for yourself how I started by failing and failing and failing, and then burning out, and failing more, and burning out again.

“But slowly, over time, you can see the reliability of these flights just inch up — tick by tick….”

The Man Behind the Mission

What’s especially inspiring is Barnard’s lack of a technical background. Barnard quips in one online biography that “I have a degree in Audio Engineering from the Berklee College of Music if that counts!”

“I picked up a few textbooks, found a few good YouTube tutorials for coding and mechanical design, and got to work experimenting!”

But Joe Barnard is a true and genuine fan of SpaceX’s real-world flights. “After seeing the ambition of SpaceX, and the excitement in the new space industry, I was hooked,” Barnard’s biography remembers.

“I used to be a wedding videographer on the weekends,” he explained in the video, and “I spent any extra money on rockets during the week.” But his explorations are now funded through sponsorships, a Patreon page, YouTube ad revenue, and sales of model rocketry components through a small company he created, BPS.space. The company’s site emphasizes a larger mission of “providing hands-on experience with advanced rocketry components is important for the next generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts.”

Among BPS’ offerings are model rocket flight computers, which do everything from controlling parachutes and in-flight emergency aborts to some more sophisticated thrust vectoring and even logging flight data on a micro SD card — including orientation, altitude, velocity, and acceleration — all configured with an iOS or Android smartphone app.

Most notably, the company seeks to emulate the vertically-landing rockets from commercial spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX. Barnard’s site says he picked that goal “figuring that a display of similar ambition and achievement against decent odds would impress SpaceX and might get me a job.”)

And this summer, that long-awaited vertical landing finally happened.

Rocket Science

Barnard’s triumphant video features a montage of various preparations — and of past failed attempts.

“I thought the project would only take like 3-4 months when I started,” Barnard posted on Twitter, joking that “not only did I learn about how rockets work, I also learned how their schedules work.”

One site following the ongoing adventure was the hobbyist site Hackaday, which notes that in the early years Barnard had tried to land vertically simply by timing everything so carefully that the rocket stopped burning just as it reached the ground.

Unfortunately, “the ignition time and exact thrust numbers simply weren’t repeatable enough,” the site noted.=

By 2020, they report, Barnard had noticed that “oscillating” the controller, side to side, also reduced the thrust.

But finally, Barnard settled on a design that involves blocking the rocket’s exhaust with ceramic “throttle arms” which move into place when it’s time to descend. Ceramic is necessary to withstand the high temperatures of the exhaust.) “They definitely erode over time,” Barnard posted on Twitter, “but are pretty stable for at least two or three uses.”

The ceramics cut off up to 80% of the rocket’s thrust, Barnard says in one video. But there’s an additional method at work according to the BPS Space page. “The motor can be fired at just the right time to slow the vehicle down for a soft landing.” So Barnard came up with a rocket equipped with two separate motors — one for handling the launching, while the other provides a gentle descent.

Barnard built an Arduino-based flight-controlling device named AVA (coding in C++), carefully mounting it as low in the rocket as possible, to avoid destabilizing its center of mass. After building and testing five successive generations of rockets, Barnard was finally ready to test out the Scout F series in May — a 1.2-kilogram rocket equipped with those two separate motors.

You can see its first flight on YouTube — including dramatic onboard-camera footage and shots of the landing from multiple angles. At the time Barnard called it “closer than it has ever been.”

Barnard’s humble landing pad consisted of a tarp stacked with cardboard, a rug, and a layer of mylar film — all designed to absorb some of the momentum, preventing what Barnard calls the “pervasive” issue of rockets bouncing back up off their landing pad. The mylar would hopefully allow the rocket to slide to a stop on a nice smooth surface (rather than hitting a bump and then tipping over).

The aluminum landing legs are held into place with a rubber band that gets severed during the flight by a heated nichrome wire — and more rubber bands hold them into place.

The first trial resulted in a rocket on its side, but soon it was back to the launching pad — literally — since Barnard described his Scout F rockets as “built like a tank” and easy to relaunch. And fans on YouTube posted comments of support. “Sometimes the wiggle just means it’s happy to finally be flying,” quipped aerospace engineer Nicholas Rehm.

And another commenter couldn’t resist a little teasing. “You see the problem here is when it stopped moving it was on its side, you want it to stop with the pointy bit facing up.”

Thanking Supporters

It was a historic fifth flight when Barnard finally completed the long-awaited vertical landing. And Barnard made sure that his video gratefully thanked all the long-time supporters were watching — and his funders on Patreon. “It’s crazy that I get to do this, and it’s somehow a job.” Barnard said, adding that “This thing is a money pit.” And then he revealed to all of his supporters that “You flew on this flight.”

Joe Barnard from BPS Space shows Patreon supporters flew on first VTOL model rocket flight - screenshot from YouTube video August 1 202

Every Patreon supporter’s name appeared on a printout rolled up and carried inside the rocket, “So if you support, you were part of this.”

So what’s next? Barnard has announced plans for still more flights of their Scout F rocket, “to see if we can get that landing a little less sporty.” But he’s also hoping to launch a 9-foot tall model of SpaceX’s super-heavy-lift Starship, which in the real world can carry over 100 tons of cargo into space. There’s also a top-secret project Barnard refers to obliquely as “the meat rocket.”

And Barnard also hoping to make progress on a model rocket that can ascend more than 62 miles (or 100 kilometers), breaching what’s commonly understood to be the boundary where outer space begins. “I’ve been quietly working on this project in the background,” Barnard says, describing it as “a year or two away — and a couple of dollar signs away. But we’re getting there.” Barnard also describes it as resembling the landing of a model rocket, in that it’s “a really fun goal.”

“I’m really excited to see what comes next.

And he still hasn’t surrendered the joy of his initial dream. On Saturday morning, Barnard’s Patreon funders got to watch his live footage of yet another attempted vertical landing of a Scout F rocket.

Group Created with Sketch.
THE NEW STACK UPDATE A newsletter digest of the week’s most important stories & analyses.