Education Photography & Video Science
Teen Launches Hello Kitty into Space



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.

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Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

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

View more articles by Stett Holbrook