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'A sky above you': A student's yearlong quest to send a rocket into space

<p>Joshua Farahzad, who took a leave of absence from Duke after his sophomore year, spent a year working with about 40 college students to launch a rocket into space.</p>

Joshua Farahzad, who took a leave of absence from Duke after his sophomore year, spent a year working with about 40 college students to launch a rocket into space.

“Welcome to my crib, guys. Let’s cut that. Let’s not do that,” Joshua Farahzad jokes, laughing at the camera as it pans from him to a pair of porta potties in the distance. It’s the last days of May 2019, and Farahzad, having just completed his second year at Duke, is in the middle of the New Mexico desert talking to VICE. 

The camera zooms to four people huddled around a chunk of metal. Farahzad, 21, explains that there are nine other college students and three West Point cadets here with him at Spaceport America, a commercial site for launching and receiving spacecraft. Another shot follows Saad Mirza, who has just withdrawn from Princeton University, with a red backpack slung over one shoulder, walking to a car and talking into a phone asking someone to Venmo him. When he opens the trunk, he takes out a long metal cylinder and carries it to the only machinist shop in the tiny city of Truth or Consequences, N.M.

For the year leading up to this point, Farahzad, Mirza and a team of about 40 college students have been working towards launching a rocket into space. Tomorrow, they’ll see if the rocket pierces the Kármán line—the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space at 62 miles above sea level—and if barely passing classes, dropping out of school and spending countless hours on a dream pays off. But right now, they have a day to put together all the parts, which were flown in from all over the country.

“We’re going to have to try to save the other one by doing some sketchy adaptor ring and maybe gluing it on or something. Sketchy and going to space don’t usually go together,” Mirza says to the camera. The two guys next to him chuckle. 

There are nervous remarks of “I guess we don’t really know what we’re doing,” and “how do you think this might have happened, dude,” as they find out the fins of the rocket are different weights. There’s someone off-camera asking Mirza, “Who’s checking your math on all this?” After a pause and a stare, he responds: “Nobody.” 

Right before the launch, Farazhad glances around him: “There’s a rocket on the rail right now and it’s really humbling. No matter where you are in the world, there’s a sky above you. And to be touching that is a cool experience that most people have never felt, never had and never been a part of.” 

He doesn’t know it yet, but his sophomore year at Duke was also his last. After what happens this weekend, he won’t be going back. 

* * *

Farahzad is a sucker for all things infinite, unabashedly obsessed with the concept of unlimited possibilities but also acutely aware of how cliche it sounds when he says that. With curly brown hair and green eyes, he alternates between falling back in his chair and eagerly leaning forward as he talks. Most of his sentences end in him laughing, mainly at himself, or trailing off as he stares blankly. He uses the word “crazy” often, though he admits that he doesn’t really know what crazy means. For most of his life, he says, all he wanted was for people to take him seriously, to gain some credibility by doing something “crazy.” 

Convinced that college was going to prepare him for this, he came to Duke in 2017 looking to meet students and professors who had big dreams to do something incredible for the world. But he says he did his first year all wrong, letting it pass him by as he spent most of his time in his dorm room. 

At the end of his first year, confused as to what he wanted to do and how college fit into the picture, Farahzad decided that maybe what he really needed was to just scrap the path. Maybe “crazy” could begin now. Roaming around in Utah on a family vacation after the year ended, he told himself, “Screw it. I want to do some space thing.” 

“I thought, ‘Damn, there’s no way I’m going to get prepared by passively partaking in school,’” Farahzad said. “The concept of launching a rocket into outer space is absurd and if I can pull it off, then maybe people will take me seriously.” 

Farahzad had always been intrigued by space, its vastness and immeasurability, but he never gave it much attention. The closest he got was making a six-inch rocket with some friends for his physics class during his junior year of high school; it was disqualified from the class competition before it ever launched. 

But that summer, instead of working in a Duke lab, he fired off emails to college rocketry clubs. “I got a lot of responses of people saying, ‘Who the hell are you?’” he told VICE. Farahzad reached out to Mirza after watching a live stream of his Princeton rocketry club’s failed launch. Eventually, a ragtag team came together.

“It seemed like none of them had any idea what they were doing at that point,” Mirza said to The Wall Street Journal. Still, “he was inspired by the idea of working with other students who shared his all-consuming fantasy,” according to the article, from May 2019.

Farahzad created a Slack channel called Space Project, and every day there would be more people from across the country entering the channel and asking questions. He could barely sleep. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t brought any sheets or pillows with him: He used two towels in the morning and then would wrap one for a makeshift pillow and use the other as a blanket. Or maybe it was the adrenaline: Before work on the rocket had started, he was already planning all the things this team could and would do. Unlike his first year at Duke, he felt a sense of focus. That summer, Operation Space was born. 

Before school started up, the team had already held a “build week” in Nashville, Tenn., a failed test run where pieces didn’t fit because they were built in different places over the course of the summer and the parachute didn’t deploy from the upper half of the rocket. 

When he came home to Stonybrook, N.Y., Farahzad needed a ride from the train station. He called up a high school friend, Brandon Cea, who was attending West Point, to ask him to pick him up. He told him about the project, mentioning that they needed explosives. Cea ended up joining the team and securing a pound of boron potassium nitrate, an explosive regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Work on the project accelerated.

“My thinking when I started was: If it doesn’t really materialize, the worst case is I waste a few months putting it together. If it does materialize, it could change my life,” Farazhad said. “What does it matter if I’m having fun?”

* * *

Farahzad’s sophomore year saw the team spend countless hours redesigning and rebuilding parts of their 17-foot rocket. He raised money for the $130,000 project mostly by reaching out to small engineering firms. They borrowed a launch rail from Kevin Sagis, the chief engineer and vice president at aerospace company Virgin Orbit. And they grappled with how much of their lives this half-built rocket had already consumed. 

“In high school, academics came first. But my GPA doesn’t really matter a whole lot for the things I want to do,” Farahzad said. “I had a tough reckoning and reprioritized: The rocket was my life, and academics was very secondary.”

By the end of the school year, the rocket was ready. Farahzad had skipped lectures and midterms to work on Operation Space. He found himself sitting for his last final, Economics 205, filled with stress. In a week, he would be launching a rocket. He scribbled some stuff on his paper and handed it in. He got a D, went home to Stonybrook, and soon after, began the drive across the country to New Mexico. 

* * *

Months before launch weekend, Farahzad went on LinkedIn and reached out to two Duke alumni, Andrew Beaton, Trinity ’14 and a Wall Street Journal reporter, and Ike Rofe, Trinity ’16 and a VICE producer, to see if they were interested in covering Operation Space. Both said yes.

“I realized that I had put a lot into this project. I mean, I went from a decent student to just barely passing my classes. I’ve done a lot of things to try to make this work,” Farahzad said. “And even if it does work, that’s one thing, but that credibility that I wanted, it’s going to require some cool press.”

In April 2019, he landed an interview with VICE, where he found out a camera crew of three people would be meeting the team at Spaceport America to film. Two weeks before the launch, The Wall Street Journal confirmed they would write a piece. 

The story appeared online May 29, 2019, with the headline “Bored Teenagers Built a Rocket to Launch into Space—‘It’s Truly a Miracle’.” It was on the front page of the print newspaper the next day. 

By that time, Farahzad was already at Spaceport America, with terrible cell service. Calls came rolling in from news outlets like Good Morning America (“I totally blew it. We were so busy and I couldn’t call them back in time”) and the British Broadcasting Corporation with interview requests. His friends later told him they had received Apple News push notifications for the Wall Street Journal article. It all didn’t feel real to him and for good reason—at the time the article went live, the rocket was still solidly on Earth. 

Farahzad had always thought launching a rocket would be possible, but it didn’t really hit him that he could, and would, until the morning of the launch. He had received numerous emails from people who did rocketry telling him it wouldn’t work; he said one Duke professor ripped the idea to shreds. 

They also faced poor planning and logistical hurdles. The team filed for approval with the Federal Aviation Administration 20 days late. Just a few days before, Spaceport America had threatened to stop the launch, citing fears the rocket would land in a populated area. Once the team secured approval, the parts they had built didn’t seem to fit together and didn’t match their calculations. It was touch-and-go until the final moment. 

* * *

It’s May 31, 2019, just after dawn. The sky holds shades of orange and the curved silhouettes of distant mountains. With the rocket completely assembled and standing tall on the launch rail, the team starts their 60-second countdown. As zero approaches, the camera turns to Farahzad, who wears an Operation Space T-shirt with a sunset desert landscape across the chest. He stands next to Mirza; they both shuffle side to side as they squint up at the sky. As the rocket shoots upwards, Farahzad starts bouncing up and down, his eyes tracing the rocket until it disappears in a trail of smoke. He reaches over and quickly grasps Mirza’s hand.

When the data comes back, they’ll learn that their rockets never crossed the Kármán line. The first rocket made it 100,000 feet, 18.9 miles, before falling to the ground; the second, launched June 1, made it beyond 52,000 feet, 9.8 miles. 

* * *

After the launch, Farahzad traveled to Asia for a month and a half. Then, he moved in with his grandmother in California and tried to figure out what he wanted to do next.  

He decided to take a leave of absence from Duke after his sophomore year. The rocket had changed his life and served as his college degree, he said. With so much momentum from press coverage, people from SpaceX and GoogleX reached out to him. Never mind that he still saw himself as an immature college student or that he had no sense of how he would succeed outside an academic environment. The credibility he’d long sought had arrived. 

In July 2019, he visited GoogleX. There, he met Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. One introduction led to another, and he soon found himself meeting the CEO of OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research laboratory. In just a few months, he had gone from reading about these people at the Brodhead Center to meeting them. He decided he wanted to stay and to be a part of whatever was going on in California. He’s been there ever since. 

“Coming out here and hanging with a bunch of college dropouts is a whole different set of experiences,” he said. “You definitely feel the opportunity cost: I see my friends and they’re having a good social time at school and I’m living alone in San Francisco. Once, I was living in Oakland [Calif.] with my friend and we didn’t even have windows, we just had steel bars.”  

Leaving school has allowed him to pursue multiple projects at one time. Currently, he’s leading a team on creating a website, whatimbuilding.com. Citing his frustration during Operation Space, Farahzad wants to provide an accessible space for people to document their own project process and find other projects.

“He’s really good at getting people on board to do things,” said Harry Merzin, a long-time friend assisting him on the website. “You can tell he’s got practice.” 

Farahzad has also begun work involving human biology with Greg Timblin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California—Berkeley. The two met during Farahzad’s sophomore year at the Bay Area Aging Meeting, where they struck up a conversation at lunch and kept in touch. 

Recently, Timblin found promising compounds for metabolic diseases. Looking to secure a patent and to file a licensing deal with the school, he turned to Farahzad to help found the company Inapill. The two are now talking to investors to fund preclinical drug tests. 

“This biotech world is run by older guys in suits and so Josh comes off, even though it’s naturally how he is, almost too easygoing or too laid-back for them,” Timblin said. “He shows up on Zoom meetings and he’ll be like, ‘Oh, I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror today,’ and his hair will all be messed up. I fear a little bit that, because of the age and because of the appearance, people may not take him seriously or think he’s immature.”

With another friend from Duke, Farahzad also decided to rent a biosafety level 2 laboratory in Hayworth, Calif. They are testing their hand at making viral vectors, delivery mechanisms used by molecular biologists for genetically engineering cells, which are currently in high demand.

“Biology is also infinite, but the other way,” Farahzad said. “I’m starting to think more and more biology is our generation’s computer and we are in the midst of a massive biological revolution.”

* * *

The VICE video, “Ivy League Students Drop Out of College to Launch a Rocket,” was uploaded the September after the launch. It currently sits at more than 100,000 views. After the launch, Farahzad is filmed saying, “When I thought about this project originally… How hard could it be? I was extremely naive.”

This naivete is what fuelled Operation Space: courage and recklessness blended together. Who can draw the line between sky and space, between one layer of the atmosphere and the next? 

The VICE video isn’t what pops up first when you search Farahazad on Youtube, though. Instead, it’s a TED Talk from three years ago: “Why Now is the Time to Be a Youth Entrepreneur.” The presentation includes a discussion of Farahzad’s project in 2015, wherein he and his old friend Hugh Ferguson created “mission: toothbrush,” a non-profit that collects and donates basic dental supplies to those in need in Long Island. 

“We had no idea how difficult this would be. Our sheltered, naive high school minds simply ignored this,” Farazhad says in the talk. “But this is one of the greatest advantages that we as young people have. We lack an understanding of how difficult our idea, venture, vision may just be. And we get ourselves involved in something that, had we known would’ve been difficult, we might not have gotten involved in so fast.” 

In a society that’s usually telling you to look before you leap, Farahzad, it seems, is always mid-jump.

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