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Discount Missiles? Indeed!

Arsenio Melndez

For this episode of Fireside Chat with the Xperts, we have a truly unique guest, Arsenio Menendez, AKA Missile Man.  By day, he is a systems engineer with NASA, but in his spare time he follows his passion for reverse engineering Stinger missiles.

This interest is missiles captured Arsenio’s imagination at a young age, and as he describes it, engineering found him as a result.  This is a great conversation about the path he took to NASA, his current projects, and his super interesting professional aspirations.  You can get a peek at his work on Discountmissiles.com.

We had the pleasure of dispatching our mobile X-ray van to the Missile Man’s home/lab back in December.  He had a ton of interesting samples to X-ray, and we’ll look forward to seeing how he put those images to use in his upcoming teardowns.

Enjoy this one, please reach out with any questions or if you have some interesting samples to image, and register for upcoming Fireside Chats with the Xperts and view our archives here.


 

Transcript:

Megan Bergsma:
Hi, and welcome to another episode of Fireside Chat: a chat with the experts. I’m your host, Megan Bergsma, and we also have our head honcho creative Dr. Bill Cardoso.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Hello guys.

Megan Bergsma:
Hello, hello. For this fireside chat, we actually invited a Creative Electron fan who has seen our X-ray demo live. So please help us welcome Arsenio Menendez AKA missile man.

Arsenio Menendez:
There you go. Hello.

Megan Bergsma:
Hello. So let’s start off the bat Arsenio. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do for a living?

Arsenio Menendez:
Hi everyone, I’m Arsenio Menendez. Yes, like the comedian. No, I’m not named after him, but when I was on a carrier, I did get the call sign. I’m a systems engineer out of NASA Goddard and my current project is developing an integrated system on a chip carrier board to connect instruments from the late nineties to early-to-mid 2000s onto the internet via cellular modems in a way that is easily expandable and deployable with our current existing instrument networks.

Megan Bergsma:
So what got you involved with your also known as name missile man? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Arsenio Menendez:
That was something I’ve been a fan of for many, many, many years. Part of my engineering path started probably when I was 11 and I had read about the AIM-9 Sidewinder and the simple elegance of its design. And I just wanted to know more about it. And before you know it, I was on the path of just collecting materials, collecting as much information as I could, and just becoming the missile man of my friends’ group. They’re like, oh yeah, he likes missiles, symbolize.

Megan Bergsma:
And can you tell us a little bit what you do with missiles? Just kind of full disclosure of what you can and cannot do with missiles. Because everybody, when I came out to visit you, they were like, missile man? Hmm? Like red flag. So let’s reconstruct. What do you exactly do with missiles and why is this your hobby?

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
And keep in mind, the NSA is listening Arsenio. So keep that-

Arsenio Menendez:
The NSA is right up the road. And, hi Jeff. How are you doing? Jeff’s my agent, probably watching this. No. So, to put it simply, I basically enjoy reverse-engineering these things and figuring out how they work from first principles or just going backwards and taking a piece of hardware, looking at it, figuring out how it works, or imagery, and then understanding it from that point of view, and then reengineering it in CAD models. We’re 3D printing it out and then deepening my own understanding of it. It’s completely unlinked from my professional life because at the agency, we don’t touch missiles, we don’t touch military tech. So I’ve just been doing this for the greater part of 10 years at this point. And just something really interesting. And my end goal is, I want to work in foreign material exploitation, where, basically, three-letter agencies and spicy boys go out, capture some enemy technology, and then bring it back. And then the FMEs, they go figure out how it works and how to effectively defend against it.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Hmm.

Megan Bergsma:
Very interesting stuff. So how did you follow us? How did you discover Creative Electron in the process of your hobby?

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Well, that’s part of my other research hobbies where I just basically do a lot of deep dives and digging on everything from like DC to daylight. And one of the things that I came across in my advocacy for the right to repair was iFixit. And iFixit has you guys do a lot of their X-ray images for their X-ray teardowns of new hardware that comes out. And I was like, “Holy crap, that’s cool!”

Megan Bergsma:
Nice.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
And then Veritasium had his recent video on the bowling balls, and I was like, “No, you know what, I’m going to reach out to them. Worst case scenario they say no.” A shot in the dark.

Megan Bergsma:
You know, that’s the thing about social media. You never know what’s going to happen. So for that-

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
A lot of bad things about it, but there are a lot of great things about it. Right?

Arsenio Menendez:
Absolutely.

Megan Bergsma:
Good when you have a social media manager looking out for people like that. Hmm.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.

Megan Bergsma:
Yeah. So I actually had a really great opportunity to meet you in person all the way over in Virginia because we took the X-ray van to the site. So how did you like that experience overall? And if you want to showcase some of your tools and gadgets and thingamajigs that you demoed. So can you just do a little show and tell if you will Arsenio?

Arsenio Menendez:
I absolutely can. It was a wonderful experience to be able to just put things in the X-ray and then tinker around with angles, play with the X-ray, crank the power levels up and down. And most importantly, look through the unseen and see things differently from what is normally seen. It helped a lot with some of my roots engineering stuff because I have a bunch of equipment, namely, five-inch helium-driven… This one’s a control actuation system from a deck gun. And I was trying to figure out what was going on in this block here.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Okay.

Arsenio Menendez:
Before I tore it apart, because it might be destructive. And then also valve sequencing and arrangement of gas ports, which we couldn’t see sadly due to the density of it.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah.

Arsenio Menendez:
But we did get to see the valve stacks in here, which was very important because that allows me to figure out how I’m going to go in and approach the teardown so I can document the internals.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
So are you putting those teardowns in Ifixit?

Arsenio Menendez:
No. I don’t think Ifixit really has a munitions section.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
You got to call Kyle to add an ammo section on the website. That’s very cool. So what did you see there? And can you show us again and explain what you… It was quick. A bit quick. What were we looking at and what is that to begin with?

Arsenio Menendez:
So this is a helium-driven control actuation block for a five-inch deck gun from an experimental program that NSWC Dahlgren did back in the, I think it was, nineties. This was built by Chandler Evans and I found her on eBay, so I was like, I’m just going to buy that.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Why not? Right? I mean, it’s perfectly normal that anyone would do that. You find something on eBay, you buy it. Right? Might as well. Yeah.

Arsenio Menendez:
Yeah. My impulse purchases are a little different from most people’s.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. So what’s the green cylinder there on the back? What is that?

Arsenio Menendez:
So the green cylinder is the canister that holds the 25,000 PSI helium charge to drive the things, and then you’ve got this block and then this block, or what are known as thermal batteries. Thermal batteries are really neat pieces of technology.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah, absolutely.

Arsenio Menendez:
Essentially. They’re batteries that are completely inert, zero volts, and they just sit on the shelf for decades at a time not doing anything until you light them on fire. You light them on fire internally, melt the electro light, and then they just start really cranking out voltage and amps on demand.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly. So you said you got to tear down that control module or the valve stack?

Arsenio Menendez:
The valve stack here, yes. I’m going to take that apart and then document the gas flow sizes so I can figure out… Based on the pressure differential from here and then the expansion chamber that’s underneath it, I can get a rough idea of its drive force on the actuators.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Sure. Makes sense. Very interesting. So do you have an X-ray image we can see or you’re going to wait until-

Arsenio Menendez:
I’m going to write those up in a teardown document on discount missiles.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Cool. So do you have a website where we can see all those cool projects you’re working on?

Arsenio Menendez:
Yes. A lot of my projects are documented on discountmissiles.com.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Discountmissiles.com. Okay.

Arsenio Menendez:
It’s super easy to remember.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Really. Yes, yes. I mean I’m often shopping for a missile, so discountmissiles.com, that rolls off the tongue very easily.

Megan Bergsma:
Yeah. Fun fact, the… Go for it. Go for it.

Arsenio Menendez:
I tried to get arsen.io, but Arsenio Hall, the comedian, is parking it as a redirect and would not answer my emails.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Oh, Arsenio. So you mentioned that you were interested in this reverse engineering, which is a huge field and it’s been around forever and is just growing right now. Tell me more about it. I mean, what are the next steps you got there?

Arsenio Menendez:
So the next steps for me probably are, continue with the work stuff and namely finishing out these boards, the ones that I was talking about developing. And then from there, I would go and continue reverse engineering a multitude of things to figure out and learn from those things. How they work, how they’re assembled, and get inside the minds of the engineers, which is a lot of how I learned myself. Growing up, I tore everything apart I could get my hands on with the screwdriver.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah.

Arsenio Menendez:
And from there, I learned massive amounts about the engineering process, different methodologies of doing things, or how to engineer things for design for manufacture, because I learned from not the books, but from actual developed and manufactured products.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
That’s the best way to learn, right? Now, you were talking about learning, and I want to take a quick segue here towards our educational system. And we talk about engagement with colleges and at a high school level, were there any significant moments throughout your education that helped you guide towards a technical career?

Arsenio Menendez:
Yeah, there probably would be a few of them. One of them was when I moved down here to Virginia with my family and I attempted to join the engineering focus track at my high school, but was turned down because I was a transfer student and I didn’t have the prerequisites going into it.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Oh, gotcha.

Arsenio Menendez:
So I was hard gated from it there. And then after graduating with a not so great GPA, instead of that, because I’d been sacrificing my social life to go to the hackerspace up in Arlington when it was still there and learning the craft there from people who lived in breathed engineering, I decided, oh yeah, I’m just going to keep doing that. And I proceeded to continue doing that while working at small tech repair companies locally, before eventually pivoting and going to NASA.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
That’s fantastic, man. Yeah. A technical career, some say that you don’t choose to become an engineer, it chooses you. Right? You don’t really have an option, you just have to live with that.

Arsenio Menendez:
Yep. When the knack got the knack, it comes knocking and it’s like, you’re going to be an engineer. No. No. Dread it. Engineering always finds you.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
We’ll get you man. You can run, but eventually we’ll catch up with you. And you also showed us a board. Is that the one you’re working on right now to interface the older electronics to the new stuff? I see-

Arsenio Menendez:
Yes.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
It’s a Bluetooth module, USB port-

Arsenio Menendez:
No, no, so that’s the cell modem to connect it to the internet.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Oh, the cell modem, okay.

Arsenio Menendez:
You got your solar power in, the DV9 serial to connect to them, and then here’s the part of it, which is a OSD335x System-In-Package from Texas instruments.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Okay. That’s super cool.

Arsenio Menendez:
Yeah. It’s a BGA, which is a little bit of a pain in the ass to design and manufacture, but the lab’s got the equipment I need.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
And you have X-ray to look for the quality of the BGA, so that’s all good.

Arsenio Menendez:
Yes. That’s one of the things we did. I checked for voiding and cracking and it looks like my process was controlled really well because not a single one of the balls was cracked and they all were perfectly pillowed.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Nice. That’s awesome. You passed that one and well done.

Arsenio Menendez:
Because previously I’d done the inspections by basically taking the boards with me when I went to the dentist and I was like, “Hey doc, can I borrow your ex real quick?”

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Cool. So, I assume you are in your garage or somewhere in the lab in your house. Is that where you are right now?

Arsenio Menendez:
Yes. This is down in the basement. It’s my heavily-outfitted developmental lab.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah, we don’t have basements in California, so we have to stay in the garage. Yeah. I wish we had basements, it’d make life much easier. So we have garages instead. So what’s intriguing you from a technology perspective today?

Arsenio Menendez:
Intriguing me from a technology perspective is definitely the rise of thermal imaging and how it’s propagating out rapidly and becoming very commoditized at this point. Previously, it used to be the domain of multibillion-dollar companies like FLIR, Raytheon, or BAE Systems.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah.

Arsenio Menendez:
Now that the original patents are starting to expire on like vanadium oxide or amorphous Silicon. What’s happening is, you are getting the massive explosion of thermal imaging, especially after things like COVID exploded the market for thermal imaging, which I also used my advantage. And I snagged a VGA 640 by 480 thermal camera for under a thousand dollars because I was like, Hmm, yes. There’s going to be a massive surge, everybody’s going to buy thermals, and then when the pandemic quiets down, that’s when it’s time to buy.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Exactly. So is that one of those you connect to your phone or is it a standalone camera? There you go.

Arsenio Menendez:
Standalone camera. It’s a fever monitoring camera.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Oh, nice. That thing’s big.

Arsenio Menendez:
Yeah. It was on sale for like $25,000 dollars, but everybody’s surplussing them at dirt cheap prices now.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
That is fantastic man. So what are you going to do with that? Do you have a plan?

Arsenio Menendez:
Oh yes. Because this one’s a fully ratio metric core, I use it all the time in circuit board bring-ups. I point it at the circuit board when I start powering it on, look for what’s eating up or causing problems because it’ll light up like a Christmas tree. It’s like, oh problem right there.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
You know, I was expecting a much more exciting answer like I’m going to launch a missile and I’m going to do the thermal track and do some guidance for that.

Arsenio Menendez:
So some of my projects are indeed tuning some of the guidance law stuff and ground-based stuff which…

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
I feel like we can ask him to show anything, Megan, and he’ll find it in the lab.

Megan Bergsma:
Oh, for sure.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah, I have it right here.

Arsenio Menendez:
Yeah. This was a turret from the Texas highway system that is an EOIR, so it had thermal here. That’s over there on my shelf. And then this one has a zoom camera, but I’m using it as a general-purpose pan-tilt positioner so I can sling basically anything on the side of it and use it to drive things with the two massive stepper motors in it.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Do they know you have it there?

Arsenio Menendez:
Hmm?

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Do they know you have that in there? That-

Arsenio Menendez:
Oh yeah.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
It’s not missing there in Texas somewhere?

Arsenio Menendez:
No, no, no. it was surplussed.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Oh, surplussed. Okay, Okay. Just making sure.

Megan Bergsma:
You got on Ebay again?

Arsenio Menendez:
No, that was a BMI surplus up in Massachusetts. I don’t know how they got it up in Massachusetts.

Megan Bergsma:
Oh.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. Sometimes this massive warehouse consolidates surplus from a bunch of places and then they just put it on for retail disposal. Now, if you could get a hold of anything, any technology out there… If you were granted one wish, to get a hold, to have in your lab anything you can ask for, what would it be? Legal or illegal.

Arsenio Menendez:
Does it have to fit in the lab?

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
No, it can actually fit your lab inside it if you-

Megan Bergsma:
You have plenty of space in Virginia, so if you want to put it near the house so we can all find you there, what would it be?

Arsenio Menendez:
I would probably say, I’d want a Paris-class frigate with the full complement of equipment.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Oh wow.

Megan Bergsma:
For those who don’t know, like me, can you explain what that is?

Arsenio Menendez:
So the Paris-class frigate is the backbone of the United Nations space command’s fleet. They’re the iconic frigate from Halo. And with the full complement, you’d have the Scorpion tanks, you’d have the Pelicans, you’d have the faster-than-light drive, you’d have the Warthog, you’d have all the ODTs, you’d have all the goodies. And then just take it around the solar system, go on the grand tour, swing by Mars, goof around on Mars, build some Mars pyramids, really mess with some astronomers, and then also use it to commute to work. Just take the Pelican up and just go across, park it over at work, and just fly down.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
That’d be a fast commute.

Arsenio Menendez:
It would probably annoy the D.C National Guard and air traffic control because they would be very annoyed at something that large coming in from space very fast and then just parking itself there.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. It’s a somewhat controlled air space that you will live under right there. Yeah. Some people live up there, right? They don’t like the disturbance.

Arsenio Menendez:
I think it’d be pretty to just be like, D.C regional, I’d like to request landing. Pelican D773. Say again altitude? Altitude is 27 miles and on glide slope. 27 miles?

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Where the hell are you coming from?

Arsenio Menendez:
Coming in from orbit, just swung by the moon real quick.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
So, Arsenio, I have three young kids. What’s your advice for them as young engineers and young scientists? What’s your advice for the kids out there who want to pursue a career in technology?

Megan Bergsma:
And I think Bill is also looking for Christmas presents to get for his kids.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Oh, they already told me what they are, so. Santa’s already fully stacked, but I can always take in… Oh, those IR cameras are looking awesome, so you might.

Arsenio Menendez:
Oh yeah. You can get a bunch of these things for pretty cheap if you know where to look on surplus markets.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Nice.

Arsenio Menendez:
So basically, my biggest advice to kids these days, because as somebody who has reached becoming an engineer without the degree, I’ve had a very odd path and I haven’t fully drank the educational system indoctrination Kool-Aid. So, basically my advice is, don’t sweat the grades as much because I’ve had interns who are 4.0 students from like MIT, and then I’ve had an intern who was a wildland firefighter in Alaska. And it’s incredible seeing the difference between somebody who’s practical engineering versus somebody who’s just book smart engineering. It’s not all about the books. Sure, a good GPA will make people be like, oh, okay, they studied really hard. But what’s the critical part is, knowing things and actually having that engineering sense that only comes with doing it.

Arsenio Menendez:
So, get into some passion projects, write about them. Get a blog, create a portfolio page. Just do projects for the sake of projects, for learning, for just shenanigans, or just like, hey, that’s kind of a dumb idea. Yeah. Whatever let’s do it.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Let’s do it anyway. Yeah.

Arsenio Menendez:
Surround yourself with high-powered people and do fun engineering things together. It makes all the difference in the world.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
And then I think you touched on a very important thing, which is passion. Right?

Megan Bergsma:
For sure.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
And it’s very clear that you have plenty of it. And so it’s super exciting to share some of that with you because that’s what drives the world. At the end of the day, when you have to face 20-hour days and seven-day weeks, if you don’t have the passion, it’s not going to take that far. Right?

Arsenio Menendez:
You got to feed the knack, feed that curiosity, keep it burning, because school will try to stifle it.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah.

Arsenio Menendez:
Because just grinding away studying is going to be boring as hell, but you got to do those things to keep your brain going.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yup.

Megan Bergsma:
And then that’s actually very informant with people who don’t follow the traditional school, but they’re like really smart and they can be really good employers. And sometimes it’s just seeing those passion projects and seeing those things out there, like what you do Arsenio, is really cool examples of like… Even though he doesn’t have the degree, even though he doesn’t have this and that, you can tell, I can tell from the fact that you’re a brilliant guy and very, very outgoing when it comes to the things that you’re passionate for. So sometimes we probably need to take a step back in this educational route and just be able to give back to those like, hey, this kid is passionate, I want that in my team. I want them to be able to have that passion and curiosity to really take things far, and sometimes you don’t get that in the traditional school format.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. And I think the school format is… I think it was prone to drastic change prior to COVID, and a lot because COVID is being through redesign and rethinking of what’s the use of being in school every day for five, six hours discounting the daycare aspect of school. But the overall education and motivational aspect that drives people to fulfill their passions and to keep igniting things that they love to do and to allow them to do it. So I very much understand where you’re coming from Arsenio.

Megan Bergsma:
All right, well it’s the top of the hour, and so I just have one more question for Arsenio.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Already? Come on, we just started.

Megan Bergsma:
Yeah. Isn’t it crazy how time flies when you’re having fun. So I have a little bit of a two-part question. What’s next after seeing the X-ray van and getting all the things that you want to demo out, and what are you excited to get into dissecting and taking apart, aside from the thingamajig that you just showed us?

Arsenio Menendez:
So the next steps are probably taking those X-ray images and then mashing them up with the actual physical invisible images so you can get an idea of where things are internally, and then proceed with the documentation process on those. But as for the thing that I’m most excited for next, that’s this beauty. It’s an entire… This is an entire AIM-9J guidance control section from 1969.

Megan Bergsma:
Oh.

Arsenio Menendez:
And figuring out how this thing works, figuring out the guidance of law and all of that, is my primary with this. What better way to get a foreign material exploitation than to do it for real.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Exactly. So is that the complete object?

Arsenio Menendez:
Yup. Everything from gas green all the way forward to the mirrors that make… Well, the mirror because the other one broke off, of the seeker.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Very cool.

Arsenio Menendez:
Yes, I know the fin’s wrong. It’s a Lima fin. It’s a little bit anachronistic, but meh, who cares.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Who cares, yeah. It looks like a shark. That’s cool.

Megan Bergsma:
That’s what I was just thinking. Definitely, our thumbnail for this video would definitely… If you can get a picture of this, that’ll be great.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
There you go.

Arsenio Menendez:
Oh yeah. I’ll have some pictures up.

Megan Bergsma:
Thank you so much, Arsenio, for joining us and being able to just kind of showcase what you can do with a passion and hobby and turn it into something great, and reaching out. This is a really cool experience to be able to come out and see you in the flesh and see how you’re very passionate about… And I’m looking forward to seeing what you have on your discount missile website, and being able to showcase Creative Electron’s X-ray images to your passion projects.

Arsenio Menendez:
I really appreciate you guys sending out that X-ray van as a divert and answering my ridiculous query on Twitter.

Megan Bergsma:
And any other X-ray image you need, just let us know. We’ll help you out.

Arsenio Menendez:
Will do.

Dr. Bill Cardoso:
Thanks so much, man. Nice meeting you.

Megan Bergsma:
Have a good one.

Arsenio Menendez:
Nice meeting you too.

Megan Bergsma:
Bye.

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