Interview #4

Student Name: Ismail Hozain

Name of person interviewed: Paul Breed

Profession: Embedded Systems Programmer / Business owner

Location and business name: CTO of Netburner

Date of interview:11/10/21

Time: 7:30pm

I was very very very very excited to interview Paul Breed. He’s quite famous in the rocket scientist community and for good reason. Back in 2006-2009, something called the Northrop Grumman Lunar Landing Challenge was launched as a second prize to the Ansari XPrize which launched Virgin Galactic. There was a $1 million prize at the end of this challenge to the team that could build a vehicle hover for 180 seconds, translate over to a different landing pad and subsequently land itself on the pad and many small companies formed as mostly non-profit volunteering efforts. It’s quite a nerdy thing to do so it’s really easy to talk smart people into building rockets. It’s very intellectually challenging and more frustrating than most things. There were 3 main competitors that actually mattered in a field of roughly 8-10 teams over the three years including: Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace, and Unreasonable Rocket. MSS was a Mojave based effort with a relatively large engineering team of around 20+ people who came together to make a reusable rocket that could solve the task. Armadillo has been going on since the 90s but this gave them a new direction and their small team did really well, eventually winning the whole competition and transitioning to work on a hypersonic vehicle for the military. And then there was Unreasonable Rocket: a team of 2, a dad and son team! They came really really close to winning, coming in what can effectively be considered a thankless third place. Now the people on this team were Paul Breed Sr. and Paul Breed Jr. and I interviewed Paul Sr. who is known for his Unreasonable Rocket blog which was maintained for years and documented his trials and tribulations during the process of building his competition vehicles. In fact he’s quite famous for it. I was so flattered when he said my rocket project was ‘very cool’.

Beginning with the interview we introduced ourselves and I told him a little about what I was doing and spent like 10 minutes trying to convince him that I knew what I was talking about as he quizzed me on orbital velocity and recommended some books I’d already read. He told me about the FAR site which is where I had been planning on launching from.

We then talked about the more interesting process of his rocket and how I’d like to build something similar to it for my next major project. He came up with possibly the smartest, simplest solution to my future programming struggles. One of the main difficulties in building something like this is writing the autopilot. It essentially starts from a PID control loop (Proportional + Integral + Differential) code which is a pain to write, tune and debug because it is very math heavy. And then once that is established and confirmed, you somehow have to get positional data to control the direction of the flight and Paul did this using GPS on a remote control helicopter. He said it was a lot easier to just make the software from the helicopter/drone work with the rocket engine than writing the software from scratch. While I could do that it is very painful and I like propulsion a lot more than software engineering. He suggested that I build a hydrogen peroxide monoprop which I don’t plan on doing. I like biprops a lot more and peroxide gives a performance hit as well as being a complete pain to get in any reasonable concentration. I prefer either IPA/LOX or Kerosene/LOX. He said to maybe consider IPA which I’m leaning towards as Kerosene can be a little annoying to regen cool with. We spoke about Exos and he suggested that I go there and volunteer for them which I think is a fantastic idea and want to do now. I had emailed them prior for an interview but they seem to be very very busy building their next-generation rocket for a lad like me. 

We spoke about an amateur rocketry forum that he said that I should post my project on and that they would very much enjoy. I will definitely post about it there and am going to start my own blog on Medium to document my daily tribulations with the rocket which are finally increasing as a sign of much hastened progress and things returning to my control rather than being outsourced. I had been struggling with what to do about the massive amount of documentation that I am pretty much missing because we never wrote much down in documenting what we went through but I settled on writing a very long introductory post that would go over the very high level summary and story of the project and then slowly fill in information after the fact and then post that blog to the forum. This could be fun and I like to write anyways. I find social media like Instagram a little bit frustrating as I can’t get into very much technical detail and things that are interesting to blog-reading rocket scientists typically align more with what I wish to write about. Writing allows me to compile my thoughts into something I can review later and laugh at. It’s fun sometimes to reflect on the ridiculous things that I thought would work earlier in the project and some of my incorrect understanding of some subjects. 

And to top it off he really liked the rocket. His camera wasn’t at all working for some reason but he said he’d be happy to meet with me next week to show me some of his flight hardware. He’s also probably the first person to fire a 3d printed rocket engine (steel). Overall this was my favorite interview yet as it was with somebody very interesting and somebody I’d been wanting to meet for a long time. It’s hard to explain but he’s like an engineering celebrity and he very much lives up to his reputation.