[Note: Before I delve into this topic, I feel I ought to mention that while I’m going to discuss project management/engineering issues, that I’m also going to be discussing other relgious/personal examples as well. Please bear with me.]

The debate over whether the Stick is having problems, and whether we should thus abandon it, or whether we must see it through has reminded me of an unsettled question in my life. Is it always right to keep going and see any difficult task through to completion, no matter the difficulty? Or is it best sometimes to reevaluate and change course when the going gets tough? How do you know which situation is which?

One of the things I got hammered into me growing up was the power of determination. If you set your mind to it, the saying goes, there is almost nothing you can’t accomplish. Unfortunately, I’ve ran into several situations in the past which have made me wonder when it really is best to keep slogging through a tough problem, and when it truly is wisest not to keep slogging away at it, but to completely change courses.

The first time that I remember giving serious thought to the problem was on my mission in the Philippines. We often has people who would keep inviting us over, even though they really didn’t seem to be interested in actually taking anything we had to say and actually doing anything about it. We’d keep going over every couple of days, and nothing would really change. They weren’t antagonistic, but were basically of apathetic. All my training up until that point said, don’t give up on these people. If they’re even remotely interested, keep working with them, and eventually they’ll come around. But at some point I started wondering if that was the most effective way of doing things. I only had a finite amount of time that I could use, and while those individuals were important, and I cared a lot about some of them, I wondered if it was right for me to keep investing what limited time we had on them when they really weren’t ready yet, when I could instead be trying to find people who were. Trying to strike that balance was a real challenge. One that I’m not sure I ever really did well with. I may never know in this lifetime whether I squandered opportunities to share our message with people who truly were ready for it and could have been helped by it, or whether I was too hasty in dimissing someone as being “uninterested”. Yes, I do lose sleep over this occasionally.

Another experience that seems relevant is my thesis project. People ask me what degree I have, and I keep telling them that I’m “half a thesis away from” a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering. Unfortunately, my department has a policy for Master’s students that they have 5 years from when they start the program till when they have to graduate, or start all over. My time runs out in August, which means that I have to have my thesis done and defended by June, or I go back to being just a guy with a Bachelor’s degree in Manufacturing Engineering, as though those two years of my life never happened. That would really suck. The problem is, I’ve gotten myself into a rather difficult situation with my thesis. To make a long story short, I chose a thesis topic, thinking that I would make a prototype of a new invention, get it to work, do some experimentation on various parameters to figure out what the best operating parameters were, and then analyze the data, write the paper, and be done with it. Unfortunately, the concept didn’t work at all the first time. So, I researched it out for half a year, found some obscure references that were relevant, started making some math models, and started trying new design iterations. I changed the focus of my thesis to just trying to get enough data to be able to validate those models sufficiently that someone in the future could build a more optimized design. Unfortunately, in spite of having gone through something like 6-10 iterations now, I still haven’t been able to get any clear evidence proving that anything I’m doing is having any effect at all. My models did very accurately predict the resonant frequency of the coupled piezoelectric-fluid dynamic system, but I’ve been unable to close the rest of the model, and I’m uncertain if my initial concept is even workable at all. I’ve thought of a couple of things I might be able to do to get better readings (going to a more viscous fluid to force the flow to be laminar so I can get a better comparison, going with a much lower frequency piezoelectric system to make sure I’m not getting any weird compressibility effects, going with a higher speed camera system to get better and clearer data, etc), but I have no idea if four months from now after I’ve done all these things if I will have even gathered enough data to be able to validate or invalidate my models, or even if I’ll be able to complete the analytical modeling of the system. I’m pretty sure I can handle the piezoelectric/mechanical side of things, but the fluid dynamic coupling I’m not at all confident with. I could very well throw all of my free time between now and June at this project and still not have anything that I could defend.

So, I’ve been thinking about trying to change research topics to something closer to what I’m familiar with, and something more directly related to what I’m doing at work. One of the big issues with my old thesis was that I had almost $0 worth of funding (and had to beg my way into getting all the manufacturing I needed to do done for free). The other one was that it wasn’t an area where I had a strong background in, and in fact the most complicated part of my thesis (the high-power piezoelectric part of it) was an area that none of my faculty advisors had a lot of relevant experience in. If I picked a topic that we were going to be working on at work anyhow, it’d be easier to find the time, I’d have more relevant background experience, and I’d be a lot more likely to get sufficient funding to carry out the project. We’ve got a few ideas that could make for great research projects, including ones having to do with new manufacturing methods for rocket engines, zero-g propellant settling, and a few others. There are some real risks in jumping topics though. The biggest one is that I have seven months to go from nothing to a defended thesis, and even in the best of situations, that’d be tough. More to the point, I don’t know for sure if we’re going to have the funding to pursue any of the specific research topics I’ve been thinking of. Most of them are of longer-term interest, and as is the case with most alt.space startups, we’re not exactly swimming in so much cash that we can take on very many long-term uncertain-payout R&D projects. There are federal sources of funding like STTRs and SBIRs, but those take too long compared to my window of opportunity.

So, I really don’t know which way to go on that one. If I stick with my thesis, there’s a very real chance that I won’t be able to get either the models or the experimentation far enough to finish and defend my research. If I jump topics, I’m taking a huge gamble on if I can finish, and if I can really get the resources I need to do the research. At times I wish life were as easy as the two-bit slogans people tend to toss around about willpower and determination.

Catalyst Igniters
Another example, that I think was a lot more clearcut was my experience with Catalytic GOX/GH2 igniters. Back before I joined MSS, I participated in a static firing of a large hybrid motor up at USU, as part of the Unity IV project. They had all sorts of igniter issues, and while they were finally able to test fire the engine by the end of the day, they had vented so much of their nitrous that they weren’t able to do anywhere near the kind of testing they wanted to do. I had just read about some of John’s work with catalysts, and how GH2 would catalytically burn at room-temperature with GOX. I thought that might make a great idea for an igniter, and decided to run with it. When we first started MSS, I was absolutely convinced that this was the way to go, and started trying to build such a system while I was still with the BYU Space Development Club out in Utah. We built the system, and started testing it, but kept running into various problems. I continued the research when I started at MSS. We kept running into issues with the catalysts either being not catalytic enough to get the stuff to light, or on the other hand being so fragile that they’d completely shatter with thermal shock. In the end, after doing a lot of research, I came upon some really good papers and handbooks done by NASA and some contractors back in the 60s and 70s, that gave me a lot of insights into what we were doing wrong. I then spent a bunch of time using the empirical models that I had found to develop my best stab at making a functioning catalyst igniter. At about that time, I started writing up some documentation of the project. As I’ve related previously, I started out with a simple psuedo-“trade study” to show why the catalyst igniter was really the best igniter option for our engines, and thus why we chose to investigate it.

Unfortunately, the numbers kept coming out in favor of either a spark torch igniter, or a resonance igniter, with the catalyst igniter always coming in third or fourth. I finally found some combination of weighting and tweaking of values to force the catalyst igniter to win, but by that point I realized that I was being a tool, and that it wasn’t really such a great idea after all. Most importantly, I realized that even if the thing could be made to work perfectly, it wouldn’t necessarily be that good of a system for use in our vehicle. I realized that I could keep trying to slog away at making such an igniter work, or I could focus on what it would take to actually achieve what we really cared about–a reliable igniter that we could use for test-firing and eventually flying engines. I killed the project at that point, and have never regretted it for a second.

When such a project ceases to support your main project goals, there isn’t much point in trying to complete it. Even if you did, it wouldn’t have been worth the wasted time.

Engine Testing and XA-0.1
On the other hand, here are two good examples of situations where slogging through has been the right decision. First off, we have our engine testing experience at MSS. When I started full-time at MSS back in October of ’04, my two tasks were to complete the igniter development, and help Pierce put together a mobile rocket test stand. Up until that point, my actual useful hands-on experience with high-pressure plumbing, data acquisition, and electronics was almost entirely limited to the igniter project. The learning curve was very steep, and by the time we were winding that and our igniter development down, it was now getting into fire season at our remote test site location. So we ended up spending several months putting in infrastructure up there so we could test. Then when we got there, we ended up spending endless hours debugging our electronics and daq setup. We finally got into engine firings sometime about a year ago this month. And we had a steep learning curve with that hardware too. There were several times along the way when I never felt we were ever going to have a reliable, stable, steady-statable engine. I got really depressed at times standing on the hill in the cold, or sitting on the trailer gate waiting for Pierce and Ian to resolve some network or control or daq issue. But we kept at it, and eventually things started getting better. We started figuring out how to operate at a remote site more effectively. We became more thorough with our testing of controls and electronics there at the shop. We slowly worked through many of the hardware issues that were bugging us. In the end, we had a very high performance engine, that steady-states well, can fire down to very low throttles, and generally beat all of our expectations. Slogging through paid off.

XA-0.1 isn’t flying yet, but now that we’re finally getting through our dynamic throttling issues, patience and endurance are seeming like the right approach.

Concluding Thoughts
Life is always more complicated than theory. Sometimes slogging through a problem is the best approach, and sometimes it’s best to give up and take another route. We do have finite time, money, energy, willpower, etc. As the famous demotivator poster says, sometimes your best just really isn’t good enough. There are such things as impossible projects. There are projects that are possible, but not worth completing. There are other projects that appear impossible that are absolutely essential to stick through to the end. And the great challenge in life is to figure out what you should do from now.

I’m not sure I really have figured out how best to confront this dillema (or if in my long babbling here tonight if I’ve even shed any light on the concept). The best I’ve been able to figure is that you have to look at what really is important to you, and make sure that if you did somehow see it through, if the benefits would outweigh the costs. Does your course really lead to where you want to go, and is it the most effective path there? As CS Lewis put it:

If you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

What do you all think?

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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16 Responses to Endurance

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey- why not use your experience of Catalyst igniters as the theme for your thesis. Would not this be a valid thesis topic–effective example of the engineering and physical reasons why this is NOT the ideal igniter?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Please dont’ take this the wrong way…

    It’s only a master’s thesis. You don’t need to save the world or shake the foundations of rocketry.

    Write up what you have done, what you have learned. Take the time to write it up clearly. In other words, make the most of all the good work you have done. I personally think its fine for a masters thesis (even a phd for that matter in many cases) to present results that contradict your going in ideas.

    Write it up. Put as much effort into the writing as went into the work. I think others will be impressed, based on what we have all seen of your work.

    If they aren’t, well then maybe they are some of the ones you need to just leave behind in your life.

  3. Anonymous says:

    They say leadership isn’t the ability to flog your troops
    faster through the forest then anyone else,
    Leadership is the ability to say “Wrong Forest”.

  4. Anonymous says:


    Having gone through a PhD myself and having to completely rewrite my dissertation in the middle when one of my committee members tore it apart, I know what you’re going through. But, as one of the other posters said, this is only a Master’s thesis. You’re doing ground-breaking work at MSS and I’m sure there are any number of topics you’ve worked on over the last year that would work great for fufilling the requirements. What you need to do is get on the phone with your advisor, work out agreement on a topic that doesn’t involve your having to do much more than write up data you’re already collected as part of the XA-0.1 development, then sit down and write it up. Don’t worry so much about the topic, in 30 years when MSS is building RLVs for the LEO to moon run, it won’t matter.


  5. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the previous posters. There is no such thing as a perfect thesis. Sometimes better is the enemy of good enough.

    The question you should ask at the end is: did you learn anything (and not necessarily what you set to learn)? That’s the real metric of a successful dissertation.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the previous comments, clearly writeup what you have done and why. Showing what doesn’t work is often as valuable as showing what did.

  7. Tom Cuddihy says:

    dead horse alert here, Jon. But like you I started out with a thesis topic that was trying to do something entirely new, that my advisors were interested in but not knowledgeable. In my case at NPS I wanted to conceptually design and scientifically prove out a new system to aid the warfighter. In the end I had to settle for partial results that just lead to more questions–but that’s ok. As others have said, the key really is getting your advisors to sign off on it.
    If you really had to get international acclaim for your thesis, no one would get a Masters.

  8. Jon Goff says:

    Thanks everyone for the support. I agree with the general concensus that Masters Theses aren’t exactly supposed to be earth-shattering research. They’re really just supposed to demonstrate that you’re capable of solid scientific research, typically of an *evolutionary* fashion as upposed to revolutionary. Maybe my problem is that I bit off what should’ve been a PhD Dissertation for my original topic.

    Unfortunately, in spite of being a rather good idea in theory, it looks like I won’t be able to take the suggestion many of you gave me to just writeup something I’ve done at MSS. The problem I’m running into is that in order to be a real thesis, you typically want experimentation and data. We have several projects that fit that bill, but if I use that data in my thesis, it’s now public information, and it is no longer legally considered a trade secret. Most of our stuff isn’t patentable, but we’ve spent about $600k so far getting to where we’ve gotten, and from discussing this with Dave last night, he has some very legitimate concerns about just putting that info out in the public.

    Especially since we have people talking about licensing our technology or having us do development work for them, we have to preserve some form of Intellectual Property, and trade secrets are typically the best way of doing that…Alas.

    So having thought about it further, I’m going to push forward with one of the research topics I had come up with recently. It’s an evolutionary expansion of an existing manufacturing process, but the application for which it’s used may be patentable. That way even if we lose the trade secret status on the manufacturing parameters, we can at least protect *some* Intellectual Property. I think I’m going to do some leg work, try to find out if any of this information exists in the public literature, and start writing a prospectus and a chapter or two of the actual thesis. Maybe even start arranging for using other people’s equipment and such. Then when I go to my advisor, I can present it as more of a fait accompli.

    Anyhow, thanks everyone for the support!


  9. Anonymous says:

    John I’m the guy with just a bachelor’s degree in Engineering 😛

    So I can’t really give you any advise on your master’s thesis, but I have to admit to asking myself the same question you have about determination vs. going back to the drawing board so to speak.

    I think the real question is whether what you’re doing is God’s will or not.

    Particularly in my own life, I lived for a very long time living on the idea of determination… I could do anything if I was determined enough…

    But a point came where I had to come to terms with the fact that for all my determination, nothing was happening. Road blocks seemed everywhere.

    I finally sat down and told God whatever his will was, even for me to fail, I would accept it. It was one of the hardest things I ever did.

    To make a long story short, after doing that, it was as if every single door was opened for me.

    And ever since then though I’ve struggled just with that whole problem you’ve described. Sometimes it is God’s will and he needs you to have that determination to fight till the end. Sometimes though, it’s the opposite – even though we can’t explain why or how.

    Personally I think you need to try every single avenue to reach your goal, but be willing in the end to accept it if God doesn’t want that thing for you… In this case that means accepting being a lowly Engineering grad.

    I think it’s also related to the conflict between the vice of presumption, and the Virtue of hope.

    But again that’s just me, and it may not apply to you at all.

    Also as to people not being interested during your mission, I can’t help but think of Christ’s advice to the apostles to knock off the dust from your shoes after leaving a town that has rejected you. My own opinion is that so long as you did everything reasonable you could for those people, then move on and don’t look back.

    Hope this was ok to post.

  10. Mike Puckett says:

    Can you get a waiver on your deadline?

  11. Jon Goff says:

    Seeing if I can get a deadline waiver sounds like a really darned good idea. I’ll look into it.


  12. Joseph says:

    If the option is available you could just take the non-thesis route and get your Master’s. Besides, peer reviewed journals are really what you want on your resume in addition to the degree

  13. Jon Goff says:

    They do have a non-thesis route, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken enough classes to graduate that way. I might have to go back to school temporarily to get it that way. But it’s also worth looking into.


  14. Anonymous says:

    Well, there’s already been a lot of good suggestions given in the comments, so I’ll just throw in an encouraging thought or two. I can certainly relate to your position. I’m currently deep in the throws of dissertation research (~9 years in this program) and at times the outlook has been pretty bleak (~4 years of skipping through multiple projects). I’m hopeful that I’m rounding a bend now onto the home stretch.

    On a related note, the research that I’m doing is in the area of developing highly accurate CFD solvers. It sounds like you are going with a combination of experimental and theoretical analysis of your design. Sometimes, a good computer simulation can provide you with a great deal of information that you just can’t resolve with experiments, and can’t work out analytically. A good CFD solver can even resolve non-laminar flows and still provide you with useful engineering data.

    If you’d like to know more, please feel free to contact me.

  15. Donna says:

    A lot of good ideas and advise. You have lots of wonderful friends, many who have been there, done that…

    The path of all success has an interesting look.

    You get the call or the idea and you feel compelled to start down the path. The first thing you run into is a roadblock; everyone does. it is almost as if the universe is checking to make sure you know what you are doing.

    The way past the roadblock is a mentor; you have at least two: the spirit and your advisor. Many people give up at the first roadblock and second-guess their creator. “Ah, maybe I wasn’t supposed to do this.” Of course this dialogue takes one to the path of failure, every time. Congratulations, you kept at it.

    Then comes the hard work. You have done a lot of hard work.

    After the hard work, comes: tests, traps, and trials. Trials are internal (how you experience what is happening) and you need to overcome them. Traps are internal flaws and weaknesses and need to be worked through and overcome. Tests are external and need to be endured. These tests, traps, and trials are not avoidable, they are essential to the success of the path and furnish you with better tools to complete the job. They are part of the pattern and design of the path.

    Then you have the desert, you know, “are we there yet?” This is more hard work, and time. I think you qualify for this one.

    Then there is the ultimate test. This is a great choice. I think you have made it this far. Jeffery Holland says if it was right in the beginning when it was confirmed to you that this was your path, it is right now. At this point, many give up and take the path of lessons . . . “at least I learned something.” Usually the passing of the Ultimate test requires submission.

    When you work through the Ultimate test, the end is in view and it is an exciting run, to the finish. I pray the clouds lift and you can have vision to get the end in your sight.

    You might recognize the pattern just described from The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Pearl, Athena and Persephone, The Pioneers, Abraham, Nephi, Moses, and Joseph in Egypt, the founders, and people you know.

    I know this is not easy. You can do hard things. I know you can work through this and ascertain what to do.

    “uncertainty is the fertile ground of pure creativity and freedom” Chopra

    The space you are in is a powerful one. I know you will be able to figure out what to do.

    Some life decisions you wil need rocket science:) for which you are fully equipped with experience.

    meanwhile back at the ranch…

  16. john says:

    having done the MS thesis and PhD disseration, I can really relate to your situation. For what its worth, I wanted to just second the many other posters who advised you to just go ahead and write up what you’ve got and turn it in. What might be of use to you is to metion that, at this point, being nearly 5 years after you started on your MS, your advisor is likely motivated to help you finish your degree, since this is likely the only thing he or she can get out of it by now: the support of the completion of another masters degree. Degree completions are a ‘figure of merit’ for faculty, so you would be helping both them and yourself my wrapping it up. Just based on what you’ve described,it sounds like you’ve got sufficient material to put together a thesis. A well written document could well be the key. My own experience is that grad degree seekers struggle with the thesis work because its never good enough. Crank out your unworthy thesis, get it signed, collect your diploma quickly, before anyone finds out! Good luck, John
    ps- nice meeting you at xprize cup

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