NARCON 2019 Report

NARCON is the National Association of Rocketry‘s annual technical conference. The site for this year’s NARCON was the launchpad of America’s space program, Cape Canaveral. So, what follows is my NARCON 2019 report.

Spaceman - NARCON 2019 Report

Held once a year at a different location, NARCON is a great way to make new friends and reconnect with old friends. Attendees can learn about developments in the model rocketry hobby, rocket history, build techniques and the current status of the United States Space Program.

NARCON 2019 Report

Reception at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Part of your registration fee, which was EXTREMELY inexpensive, was for a free entrance pass and reception at the KSC Visitor Center on Friday night. The day was extra special as the launch of the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. I got to the Center at 5 PM and high-tailed it to the Atlantis building to get that site-seeing mission in before the reception started at 6 PM.

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Countdown hold T-minus 1 minute 9 seconds - NARCON 2019 Report
Falcon 9 Countdown Hold T-minus 1 minute 9 seconds
Atlantis Building

The last time I was at the Visitor Center, the line for the Atlantis exhibit was out the front door. On this day, the Center was already starting to empty when I arrived. So the line into the exhibit was nonexistent.

The audio visual program introducing you to the Shuttle Program and Atlantis was outstanding. It ends with the screen rising and putting you face-to-face with the orbiter Atlantis. I took a bunch of pictures and ended the visit with a ride on the Space Shuttle Launch Simulator.

The Reception

After a nice stroll through the Rocket Garden I arrived at the reception site, the Dr. Kurt H. Debus Conference Facility. Food offered included two pasta dishes, carved roast beef, salads and desserts. And of course, there was a cash bar!

Falcon 9 Launch

After a short ride back to the hotel, I hit the “after hours” room at the conference hotel. Some of the vendors showed off their latest products to the congenial crowd.

I went to bed and set my alarm for 2:35 AM. The launch window was short and scheduled for 2:49 AM. I woke up at 2:30 AM, got dressed, and headed out to the hotel parking lot to watch the launch. The launch lifted off on time and I took this one picture. I thought I had my phone camera in video mode, but it was in picture mode…..

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Sad Falcon 9 Launch Picture - NARCON 2019 Report
Sad launch photo

The launch was fantastic and the folks in our parking lot, 13 miles away from the launch pad, felt the power of the engines.

Morning Breakout Sessions

On Saturday morning, the technical sessions started. I looked at the schedule and picked out the sessions that interested me the most. Here are mini-reports of the sessions I attended.

HPR Staging Techniques – Gary Dahlke

This was one of my “must attend” sessions. I am building a High Power Rocket two-stage project for LDRS 38 this fall, a Nike-Tomahawk from Madcow Rocketry. This is the link to the project page.

Gary did a great job explaining the techniques and pitfalls of staging high power rockets. He had some great videos and examples to show to the audience.

Towards Rocketry 2.0 – John Beans

John Beans of Jolly Logic is the creator and inventor of the Altimeter One, Two, and Three line of products and the chute release. The chute release has changed the paradigm of model rocketry by allowing higher power launches on smaller launch fields. John’s talk was about the changing technologies and user desires in the model rocketry hobby.

I enjoyed this sessions and look forward to some of the products that John hinted at being in development

3D Printing in Scale Model Building – Dr. Michael Nowak

Another session I wanted to attend was the 3D printing discussion. I have thought about getting a 3D printer for my rocketry hobby efforts. Mike gave a great presentation and saved me spending at least $500!

Instead of buying a printer and working through the learning curve, I will use one of the online makers to produce my parts with their machines and expertise. Maybe in the future, I will buy a printer when the industry has matured and some standards are established.

A number of 3D printed samples were passed around the room. They were printed with plastics, resins, and one was made of 3D printed brass!

Vendor Room

I stopped by the vendor room a couple of times on Saturday. A nice selection of products were presented. As many of the attendees were flying home, the sale of rocket motors were limited. I met Bracha and Roger Smith of JonRockets who were selling Estes and SEMROC kits. I purchased the SEMROC Mars Lander while I was there.

Andy Jackson of Aerospace Speciality Products had a table in the vendor room. He brought a lot of his kits and they can be seen in the Fun With Rockets Toolkit.

I also talked to Dane Boles, the new EVP of Marketing and Sales for Aerotech. He has some interesting news concerning the production of F8, F10, and F12 motors for slow ascent applications. He also likes the Fun With Rockets logo!

Finally, I met Randy Boadway of eRockets. His company produces and sells rocket kits and everything else needed by a rocketeer. He builds the SEMROC kit line which I like immensely.

Scale Model Competition

In the convention hall, a room was set aside to display scale rocket models submitted by NARCON attendees. Their work was fantastic and way out of my league.

Apollo Legends Lunch

Time for lunch. It consisted of salad, sandwiches, tomato bisque and a dessert table. All was delicious.

The speakers for lunch were four gentleman who were involved as engineers and managers in the early NASA programs and Apollo. We heard the story behind the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failure. Another highlight was the story behind the delay of Apollo 16 due to a technician not plugging an umbilical cable in properly. The Apollo personnel were:

  • Lee Solid
  • John Tribe
  • Charlie Mars
  • Bob Sieck

Afternoon Breakout Sessions

After lunch it was three more sessions. Two were for fun and information and one was about an exciting new product from Apogee Components.

NASA Orion and ULA Update – Chelsea Partridge and John Gadarowski

The presentation started with Chelsea of Lockheed Martin giving a talk on the Orion space craft aka the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). This spacecraft will be used for trips to and from lunar orbit and maybe farther. She discussed the project timeline and described the testing process of the capsule. I was very impressed by her knowledge of this program and NASA’s manned space flight initiatives.

Chelsea Partridge - NARCON 2019 Report
Chelsea Partridge – Lockheed Martin

Next up was John Gadarowski of the United Launch Alliance (ULA). He covered the various booster and motor programs that are ongoing in the ULA technosphere. He talked about ongoing launch facilities upgrades to accommodate their new booster, the Vulcan Centaur. Once again, I am comforted by the fact that we have competent and enthusiastic young people in the space industry.

John Gadarowski - NARCON 2019 Report
John Gadarowski – ULA
GPS Guided Recovery – Brian Houghton and Tim Van Milligan

This was a presentation I was looking forward to. I had met Brian the night before at the NARCON “After Hours” cocktail party and he had described some of his work.

GPS guided recovery is the use of a GPS receiver, an accelerometer board, and servo to steer a rocket under parachute. The goal being to reduce the distance a rocket lands from a predetermined site after a launch.

In the session, Brian presented some basic control concepts and algorithms. He described the limitations of commercial GPS receivers and presented a design for a servo-driven parachute system. He also talked about the advantages and disadvantages of different parachute designs.

Brian Houghton - NARCON 2019 Report
Brian Houghton

Tim then spoke about this project. He described sourcing and development of the parachute. He also talked about packaging the electronics so that they would fit in some of the standard rocket body sizes. Finally, he showed numerous test flights and the results were very impressive.

Tim Van Milligan - NARCON 2019 Report

Tim Van Milligan

I look forward to seeing this system for sale.

What Were They Thinking?!? – Gary Dahlke

I started the day with Gary and I ended it with him. His presentation was about various mistakes and incidents that he experienced in the space industry. Highlights included:

  • Breaking into Minuteman missile silos ( the Air Force wanted him to )
  • Shuttle Rocket Booster electronics and recovery snafus
  • The Mars Observer units of measurement disaster

It was a great talk and a lighthearted way to end the day. I also got a chance to ask Gary some more questions about two-stage deployment issues.

Gary Dahlke - NARCON 2019 Report
Gary and a Minuteman Missile Silo

Astronaut Banquet

Saturday ended with the Astronaut Banquet. It started with a cash bar reception and then the chow line was opened. The menu tonight included Caesar salad, Caprisi salad, baked ziti, beef lasagna, chicken marsala, and minestrone soup. Once again there was a great dessert bar.

The speakers were two Shuttle pilots/commanders, an early jet test pilot, and a Shuttle mission specialist. They talked about their careers and adventures.

  • Col. Al Crews (USAF, Ret.), an X-20 Dyna-Soar pilot
  • Bob Cabana (STS-41, 53, 65, 88) and current KSC Director
  • Andrew “Andy” Allen (STS-46, 62, 75)
  • Sam Durrance (STS-35, 67)

One of the best stories was from Al Crews. He was a test pilot and was flying a T-38 trainer as a spotting plane with an Air Force photographer in the back seat. The test was for the ejection seat of a B-58 Hustler while the bomber was supersonic. The test subject in the ejection seat was a bear! They ran the test supersonic three times and for some reason they did not eject the bear. They wanted to run the test again, but Al was low on fuel.

He decided he could run it again and half way through the run, the engines on his T-38 stopped. The T-38 ran out of gas! He told the photographer that he could “eject if you want to”, but Al was going to dead stick the jet back to the base. The photographer did not eject and they made it back safely.

Final Thoughts

NARCON 2019 was an enjoyable time. I recommend this meeting to anyone interested in model rocketry, rocket history, the United States Space Program, and technology in general. I want to thank the NAR and the sponsors who generously funded the majority of the food bill.

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