PacSci Perspectives

Sisters Soar To Stratosphere, Land At White House

by | Jun 22, 2016

Go backpacking. Raise chickens. Or make a weather balloon.

Those were the ideas Seattle sisters Kimberly and Rebecca Yeung came up with last summer when their parents gave them a mission to find a family activity that involved project management.

Winston and Jennifer Yeung hoped the fun summer project would teach their girls, then ages 8 and 10,  how to plan, design, budget and keep track of tasks, materials and lessons learned.

The girls opted to build a weather balloon — a three-week undertaking that took their homemade craft up to 78,000 feet (twice as high as commercial airplanes fly), turned the sisters into science-girl media stars, and prompted an invitation to the White House Science Fair where President Obama chatted with them about their project for nearly eight minutes.

“It’s crazy that our first Science Fair is at the White House!” the girls wrote in their blog.

Nervous? Before POTUS came to their table, yes. But not once they met him, shook his hand and started talking. (Kimberly had to crane her neck to look up at him.) The President joked that it was lucky the launcher didn’t land in cow dung, asked intelligent questions and really got it. He understood why they had to swap out heavy PVC pipes for light arrow shafts and why their temperature data was significant. And he was familiar with the kind of inquiry-based thinking the girls practice at school, at home and during Pacific Science Center camps.

“Give me a fist bump,” President Obama said. “I’m proud of you guys.”

One of the greatest challenges in building the Loki Lego Launcher was finding a material that would be light, but strong. In the first design, the sisters used PVC tubing for the frame, but discovered it was too heavy so had to dismantle the whole thing and try again with bent arrow shafts left over from Rebecca’s archery practice. Design, test, redesign.

After spending hours poring over Google maps and using an online calculator to predict where the craft would land, the girls chose to launch their high altitude balloon over the golden fields of central Washington, away from water, trees, cities and at least 50 miles from the Hanford Site so the Loki Lego Launcher wouldn’t drift into nuclear territory.

The shimmering balloon carried a payload of two GoPro cameras, a flight computer to measure speed, altitude and temperature, a GPS tracker and a photo of their late cat, Loki, attached to a Lego R2-D2 figurine. The latter two items inspired the ballooncraft’s name: Loki Lego Launcher.

“The most exciting part was watching it with binoculars,” Rebecca said. “Seeing it go up.” But it was also nerve-racking because they were getting signals from the GPS long after it should have been out of range.

Hours later, the balloon finally popped and the craft descended rapidly, reaching a top speed of 68 miles per hour. It ended up landing in a cow field, not far from a pile of dung, where Rebecca and Kimberly joyfully clambered over farm fences to retrieve it.

The video of their project went viral. The girls were featured in local and national media, given special tours of Blue Origin, Vulcan Aerospace and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and received several awards and speaking invitations.

Kimberly wants to be a robotics engineer when she grows up (and maybe design a flying car) because she loves building robots, a skill she practiced in Robotic Rangers, one of the many Pacific Science Center camps she and her sister have enjoyed. (Their other faves: Get Set To Be Vet, Young Entrepreneurs and Amusement Park Science.)

“Some people say technology and stuff is only for boys,” says Rebecca, who likes programming and plans on some kind of STEM career. “But with our experiences, that isn’t true. We used it, and we got to meet the President. As the President said, ‘We’re not going to succeed if we’ve got half the team on the bench, especially when it’s the smarter half of the team.'”

Later this summer, Rebecca and Kimberly plan to launch Loki Lego Launcher 2.0. They want it to soar high enough to see the curvature of the earth. It will have a larger balloon, more helium, and a different LEGO minifigure. Instead of R2-D2, Rey from Star Wars.
”We knew,” the sisters said “we wanted to have it be a girl.”

Learn more about the Loki Lego Launcher and how to send your own balloon to the stratosphere on the Loki Lego Launcher blog.

Rebecca and Kimberly’s dad reflects on curiosity, creativity and confidence.