We Build a Factory
We love NASA, JPL, and space travel so much because when we watch launches, orbital operations, and deep space missions we see the best performance and highest aspirations of mankind. In this context it feels like a fine thing to be a human. This is the opposite of what we feel when we witness the evening news.
In 2015 I read an inspiring series of essays by Tim Urban of Wait But Why, collectively titled Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man. These writings left a profound and lasting impression on me. In a nutshell, Elon is not afraid of failing publicly and looking the fool. Whereas most people would not take on a challenge like building a new Launch Services enterprise - Elon is not afraid of anything that stands little or no chance of destroying him or his family. If you feel that something is important to do and is not an existential threat, then naturally you should try to do it. If all you stand to loose is money, then do the thing and work hard at it. I only wish I could work as hard as Elon Musk.
Late in 2019 my wife and I decided to start a small business. I was itching to retire from I.T. work. It is a real grind, never ending slog, &ct. I was about to turn 60 and had managed my retirement savings well. Around that time we read The Passion Economy by Adam Davidson. That was exciting. It was almost as if he were describing our aspirations and the market we live in.
We are, among many things, Rocketeers. We launch model rockets on a regular basis. We build them ourselves both from kits and from our own designs. We have done this for over 25 years. We BOTH do this and we do it together, and have done from the start. There are several thousand rocket kits available for sale. There are hundreds of rocket motors to choose from. There are very few rocket launch controllers for sale.
IMPLS Launch Systems (IMPLS pronounced Impulse) is a premiere Rocket launch Controller Manufacturer. A rocket launch controller is, at the core of the matter, a simple electrical system that will provide and electric current on demand to burn an igniter, which is an electric match doped with propellant, to light a rocket motor.
Simple launch controllers have a 15 foot cord and run on some AA batteries. They cannot check to see if your launch leads are connected to the igniter. That can only be used to launch one rocket at a time. It is more practical to design launch controllers that run on 12v batteries, can check continuity (connection to the igniter), and can provide control for the launch of multiple rockets. Controllers with wired connections between the controller and console can be designed to work at up to 300 ft. This is what we are doing. We aspire to design wireless controllers that will work up to 1500 ft and controller systems which can support as many as 64 rocket launch positions.
If that seems strange to you then you have little exposure to amateur rocketry. That's perfectly alright. It is a small marketplace. Most people launch a model rocket or two when we are young and that is the end of it. You would not know that the National Association of Rocketry and Tripoli Rocketry Association represent many thousands of members, and that the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Fire Protection Association have regulations addressing the hobby and its practices.
So, as I said, we set up a factory. Fortunately we did not have to start from scratch. I am known for my technical skills and these include electronics and design & fabrication of systems. I have built launch controllers — refurbished old controllers, and even designed a few on spec for other rocketeers. I published one design with parts list online. Every so often I get email from someone who has decided to build one. My workshop is well appointed and I know where to acquire the parts and materials I need.
We use DigiKey for electrical parts and McMaster-Carr for our mechanical and stock parts. It was easy to provide each of them with a tax-exempt certificate so that we are not charged sales tax. I find it gratifying that we are treated with the same deference and major players like SpaceX when we place an order.
Our initial investment in tools and machines was less than $700.00. We both have excellent credit ratings and were able to acquire an account and credit line from a local Credit Union. We registered with the New Mexico State Corporations Commission, the Tax & Revenue Department, and the City of Las Cruces as a Limited Liability Corporation. That whole process cost less than $100.00. We also trademarked our Logo. All of this we accomplished before January of 2020.
A little background on that last paragraph. I joined our local NAR Section FLARE in 2000. I was secretary of the club for several years and eventually I was elected President. FLARE is a non-profit corporation chartered in New Mexico. I did not actually do this, but as President I certainly learned nearly everything I needed to know to operate a business in my home state. It is surprisingly easy and cheap to do. All the resources we need are on line.
I registered our Domains on the internet and set up our web site. We set up a Google Workspace, established our phone number, printed our business cards, and created banners and promotional materials. We had meetings with the local Small Business Administration and attended several free SBA classes at our local Community College.
Our son is a clever and thoughtful young man, and when he understood what we were setting up to do, he bought us a starter CNC machine to help us fabricate our enclosures. Without a second thought, he resolved a critical issue I was trying to work out — how to cut uniform square holes for the ethernet jacks we use to connect controller and console. It took me all of three days to get this machine assembled and configured to work with a laptop.
In March of 2020 we drove to the NARCON in Tucson, Az, with two finished Controllers, a Launch Rack, and a story to tell our fellow Rocketeers. The convention was a lot of fun and we were warmly received. The people we spoke to clearly seemed to appreciate our products and gave us some very good ideas as well. We left there with a custom order and several key endorsements from leading lights of the NAR. We caught up with several old friends and made a few new ones.
This was a very encouraging start. By May we had built up our inventory of products to the point we felt it was time to open sales. We got several orders the first month and completed that custom controller from NARCON. I had decided to end my 15 year I.T. stint in August 2020 and it turns out the timing was great. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing and I was getting increasingly uncomfortable with leaving the house. It was time to address our project full time. This turned out to be a very good move. My blood pressure dropped ten points in a few short months.
A little more background. I mentioned those model rockets you might have launched when you were a kid? While you were growing up, amateur rocketry did some growing up too. Gloria and I were on a team of rocketeers who built and launched three 16 ft tall, 124 lbs. dry weight rockets to launch student payloads as high as 16,000 feet above the New Mexico desert.
Funding came from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, a NASA Educational development program. We conducted test launches with both live and dumb-mass payloads and student launches at the SMRA Launch Site near Holloman AFB, and another at Spaceport America.
Your little rocket used an ¨A¨, ¨B¨ or ¨C¨ motor. The motor in the rocket shown here is an ¨O¨ motor. The motor alone is taller that Gloria.
So while the market for our launch equipment is small by conventional standards, it is a pretty intense market. And we really know our customers.
When we started researching business liability insurance we learned something interesting. There are online sites that promise to find insurance coverage. You fill out a questionnaire with basic information and select from options for type of business. None of these options at any of these sites included Manufacturing. We did not get any contact back from these sites.
We ended up going with a local insurance agency recommended by a Price Waterhouse agent I know. For good measure we also called a local State Farm agent. It took over a month to get a reasonable quote for the coverage we need. There were many forms and questions along the way, and a telephone interview about our ¨facility¨.
What we gathered from all of this is that manufacturing is not a typical new small business. restaurants, services like nail salons, food service, lawn care, pet groomers, &ct. People just don't set up factories in their homes.
I think is is a fantastic thing to live in a country where two people of modest means can get easy access to all of the resources and assets needed to start a business. Cheap commercial credit is something I think we take too much for granted. It is true that we only needed to borrow about $8,000.00 to get our operations running and inventory ready to sell. But no one stood in our way, and we we were comfortable that doing this was no great risk to our lives and financial wellbeing. So yeah, what a great country.