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Thirteen-year-old Lauren Rojas’ science fair project has taken off in ways she never imagined.

The seventh grader at Cornerstone Christian School in Antioch, Calif. saw a Visa commercial that featured three guys sending a balloon into the upper atmosphere. She wanted to do something simliar to test a hypothesis about the effects of altitude on air pressure and air temperature.

“I learned a lot more about space than I ever knew,” she says.

She also got an unexpected lesson in internet fame.

The video of her balloon’s trip into near space has become a sensation that’s closing in on 1 million views on YouTube. The balloon’s capsule had a silver rocket attached to it, into which she stuffed a beloved Hello Kitty doll. The footage of the 90 minute flight, taken by one of several onboard GoPro cameras, of Hello Kitty hurtling 93,625 feet — about 17 miles — above Earth is simply amazing. Lauren also affixed a pink ribbon to honor family members who have survived breast cancer. So far she’s done about 12 media interviews and the buzz keeps building.

“I really didn’t think people around the world would be looking at my video,” she says.

The build for the balloon was pretty simple. Lauren attached a six-foot weather balloon to a plexiglass-topped Stryofoam cooler that she fashioned into a space capsule. Inside was a Spot GPS device and a flight computer wrapped with hand warmers to insulate the instruments from the cold.The temperature dropped to a chilly -40 degrees Celsius. The flight computer and parachute came from High Altitude Science, and most other materials were purchased from Lowe’s and Home Depot.

The balloon was filled with hydrogen because Lauren discovered helium was in short supply.

“We called everybody we could find on the computer,” she says. “They said, ‘We haven’t had helium in six months.’”

Lauren learned that hydrogen is not only cheaper than helium, but more buoyant.

She launched the balloon in Livermore, Calif. and it landed 47.5 miles southwest, 50 feet up a tree in the hills of San Jose, after air pressure caused the balloon to burst rather spectacularly.

Lauren Rojas’ dad, Rod Rojas, is the motorsports division manager for GoPro in San Mateo, Calif. GoPro had nothing to do with the project, but Rod borrowed several cameras for the project and helped mount them on the plexiglass to record the flight.

“Of course I had to help here and there, but this was Lauren’s project from the beginning to the end,” he says.

Rob, who was on the phone with CNN’s Anderson Cooper before I called, said he got almost as much out of the project as Lauren.

“This was more than a science experiment for me,” he says. “It was really something that Lauren and I could do together and something that we’ll remember forever.”

What’s next for Lauren?

“I’m hoping to do another launch and try out different things,” she says.

What things?

“It’s kind of a secret,” her dad says.

Stay tuned for more and the results from the Cornerstone School science fair.

Got an idea for Family Friday? Send your tips to sholbrook@makermedia.com.

Stett Holbrook

Stett is a senior editor at MAKE with abiding interest in food and drink, bicycles, woodworking, and environmentally sound human enterprises. He is the father of two young makers.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.


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Comments

  1. Nikoli says:

    “GoPro had nothing to do with the project, but Rod borrowed several cameras…” Yea, um, that’s over $1000 worth of equipment… It’s a great vid and project, but let’s not BS people about the cost.

    1. The point here is that this was not an official GoPro project. Yes, it would be more expensive if she had to buy the cameras.

  2. You don’t have to use the cameras to do the project.

    1. Bill Weaver says:

      That’s true, you don’t need visuals for the project, but the guy that did the free-fall from lower space would not have been as impressive without video footage.

  3. Webster Phreaky says:

    I find it REAL HARD TO BELIEVE that the capsule, after traveling up to the height, blown around by high altitude winds, managed to land even in the same COUNTRY, let alone anywhere near enough for the 13 year old to recover it!! The Japanese during WWII launched fire bomb balloons from Japan, they DID NOT attain the altiude this kid claims and they landed in Canada and Washington state!! I call BULLCHIT on this hoax!! Geez, I only have a Ph.D. in science, and it sounds like craaaap!

    1. Not Phreaky says:

      Hey Mr Ph.D. in science, need some help getting over your rather rudely expressed scepticism?

      http://lmgtfy.com/?q=high+altitude+balloon+project

      Most of those bomb balloons you mention didn’t make it, you know. They’d have been a much harder thing to design because they had to maintain a specific altitude for a pre-set duration, not just shoot up until they burst and parachute back down.

  4. RationalCenter says:

    Please, please post some kind of disclaimer about their use of hydrogen instead of helium! I don’t know how much hydrogen they put in that balloon, but it must have been quite a bit to lift that payload. A large balloon full of hydrogen is a fairly dangerous thing, particularly if it has some atmospheric oxygen mixed in. Over 140 people were injured at a rally in Armenia last year when someone had used hydrogen for the decorative balloons, and they ignited. (Luckily it was outdoors, or it would have been far worse.) If helium is in short supply, hydrogen is simply *not* a reasonable alternative.

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