Hello Kitty Goes to Space

13-year-old Lauren Rojas is making headlines this week after sending her Hello Kitty doll to the edge of space as part of her 7th Grade science fair project. The California teen was inspired by a Citi Rewards commercial that shows three 30-something friends driving to retrieve their weather balloon, which they bought with points from their credit card. That ad made in 2011 planted a seed in Rojas’ head.

13-Year-Old Lauren Rojas Builds Payload Container for Her Science Project

13-Year-Old Lauren Rojas Builds Payload Container for Her Science Project

She says, “I thought that was one of the coolest things ever, and thought right away it would be good for a project.”

For several years people have been sending all sorts of objects high in the sky attached as payload on weather balloons. There are weekly stories of enterprising teens attaching GPS equipment and cameras on board homemade payload containers made of styrofoam or another light-weight material that will survive impact in a tree or body of water.

Five years ago, the craze was to send iPhones to the edge of space. They were compact and could record the basic GPS coordinates necessary to satisfy a simple science experiment. Besides there was a big cool factor and the pictures that one or several mounted cameras returned were always breathtaking.

Several companies decided to do product placement in space. Beverages — beer in particular — became a popular payload on some weather balloons. And last year a lego man went to space, renewing interest in sending things to the edge of atmosphere.

But in the last few years durable and compact computers began revolutionizing the send-an-object-to-space race. Inexpensive and sturdy cameras are returning high-definition video that still continues to wow a global audience. But the popularity of those journeys has a lot to do with the video editing, music selection and story behind the space trip. There are now three companies that outfit most of amateur or hobbyist trips to the edge of space.

The Rojas had the help of family friend Eddie Lacayo, who creatively edited the 90-minute Hello Kitty flight into a four-minute up-tempo adventure and made it a YouTube sensation. The excitement of the preparation and the drama of the stuffed feline’s nearer-spaceflight are heightened by his musical selection of Fun’s We are Young.

Joseph Maydell is a former NASA flight controller who at the end of the U.S. space shuttle program used his performance bonus check to start High Altitude Science. The African-born engineer has always had a passion for making things. He started out making balloon animals so it is quite fitting that he has moved into the weather balloon business.

He says among the three space balloon companies — Sky Probe and Project Acer are the other two — there are about ten amateur launches per week. He hopes that more people will take advantage of the opportunity to venture to the edge of space for about $800.

With a GoPro or Contour camera, a Spot Tracker (GPS) and on-board camera, just about anyone can send a balloon to the edge of space and return some very interesting data.

Since the story of Lauren Rojas broke this week — garnering over 400,000 YouTube views — Rod Rojas says that university students have been calling him asking for the raw footage to study.

He tells the Contra Costa Times, “It’s been terrific how it’s sparking all this interest, which is great because seeing all this, I think it’s sparked Lauren’s interest in science and pushed it that much farther. All the other kids were asking questions as well, so it’s sparking their interest as well.”

Lauren Rojas Sends Hello Kitty to Space, Sparking Interest in Science

Lauren Rojas Sends Hello Kitty to Space, Sparking Interest in Science

And because Hello Kitty is the star of the trip to space it’s sparking a lot more people’s attention. San Rio, the company that makes Hello Kitty even posted the Rojas’ video on the company homepage. Rojas says that doll is a treasured gift that her father gave her when she was six after returning from a trip to Asia. GoPro also made Rojas the video of the day.

And Annette Cluck says the project thrilled her heart. The 7th Grade science teacher at Cornerstone Christian School recounts Lauren Rojas telling her about the idea for the project. At first she was concerned and needed to make sure there was a science experiment there and not just a demonstration. Cluck says, “After she showed what she planned to do, I said, ‘Go, girl.’”

Lauren’s mother Cheryl Martinez says, “[Lauren] wanted to make it look like something was really going into space, instead of just making a capsule.” So she picked Hello Kitty, an icon all around the world. Martinez says, “She thought it would be cute to support Hello Kitty.”

Beneath Hello Kitty, who appears to be sitting in a silver rocket ship Rojas attached a pink ribbon to honor all those in her family who have survived breast cancer.

Rod Rojas who works in sports marketing says the project was quite a large undertaking with a lot of moving parts and a big checklist. The duo took about a month to put the whole project together. The younger Rojas put the weather balloon together, attached four GoPro Hero Naked cameras to record the flight and connected the on-board computer.

Because helium is so rare these days dad Rod decided that hydrogen would be a good substitute and it kept the total cost under $500.

About two months ago the Hello Kitty flight team launched the plush cat from Livermore, California and after a 90-minute flight to the inky edge of space the doll landed in a 50-foot tree about 45 miles away from the launch site. The GPS unit allowed the Rojas to act out the CitiBank commercial that started their journey as they went in search of their precious cargo.

As luck would have it the parachute and payload landed in a tall tree in the Almaden Quicksilver County Park west of San Jose. They called an arborist to retrieve Hello Kitty so they could analyze the data for the science project.

The on-board computer captured temperature and barometric pressure. And the GPS recorded the time, date and direction. From that information Lauren could figure out the exact height the balloon reached before it popped. It reached an altitude of 93,625 feet and the balloon swelled to 53 times its normal size before bursting. The GPS also captured ground speed, longitude and latitude. From the ground speed the team could also calculate the speed of the wind, which at time buffeted Hello Kitty.

According to Maydell whose company crunched the data for Rojas, there are 60,000 pieces of information that the computer captures, allowing his customers to do real science. He says mostly adults purchase the weather balloon kits but about 20-50 kids are doing projects like Rojas every year.

He says, “If you think you can do something, you can do it.”

Just ask Lauren Rojas…and Hello Kitty.

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