Cat in SpaceSure, everyone loves a cute cat picture. But a cute cat picture launched into space by two little girls who captured the whole thing on GoPro cameras? That’s so CTY.

Seattle sisters and CTYers Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung, 8 and 10, with a little help from their parents, Winston and Jennifer, built their own weather balloon, fastened a picture of their cat, Loki, and a Lego R2-D2 figurine to the front of it, and launched it from a field in rural Washington over Labor Day weekend. The result was a quirky, magical, helium-fueled experiment that captivated viewers around the world: a video of the girls’ “Lego Loki Launcher” gliding over amber fields and drifting toward the edge of space has been viewed on YouTube more than 260,700 times, and has caught the attention of NASA, GeekWire, the Washington Post, and Amy Poehler's Smart Girls.

Lego Launcher

PHOTO COURTESY OF WINSTON YEUNG Kimberly (left) and Rebecca Yeung found their Lego Loki Launcher in a cow field several hours after the launch.

Winston, who works in the legal department at T-Mobile, said he started out looking for a project his daughters could work on together over the summer.

“The original idea was actually to find a project to teach them the basics of project management – schedule, task list, budget, lessons learned, that kind of stuff,” Winston said. “We were discussing various different projects when the topic of balloons came up.”

Some research on YouTube led to the family’s decision to build their own weather balloon.

While the girls hadn't done any flight-focused experiments before, they had watched with interest when Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012, and when the New Horizons spacecraft recently approached Pluto. 

They got construction ideas from a website called High Altitude Science, and then got to work. Over three weeks, they made a platform from wood and PVC piping, and glued Styrofoam balls to the bottom of their structure in case of a water landing. The pipes proved too heavy, so they replaced them with shafts from arrows. The sisters then equipped their triangular launcher with a parachute, a flight computer, and two GoPro cameras. The final touch was tying on a helium-filled balloon.

Lego Launcher

Rebecca and Kimberly’s Lego Loki Launcher is captured on a GoPro camera sailing over a Washington field.

They encountered a few bumps along the way. For one thing, it took a lot of legwork to find an optimal launch spot.

“After looking at flight-path predictions and making calculations, we eventually decided on a town called Stratford, but then there were too many power wires (along the road), so we launched at an intersection in the middle of farmland,” Rebecca explained.

On Labor Day, they set up a makeshift launch post on the side of the road, filled their balloon with helium, and tied it to their launcher.

“Prepare for takeoff!” Kimberly announced, before giving R2-D2’s head a final snap into place. Then, holding their Loki Lego Launcher steady, she and her sister counted down from 10 and let go.

Then all was silent except for the wind, gently pushing their launcher into the sky. “It was really exhilarating, and we got that feeling of great satisfaction when we saw it floating up,” Rebecca said.

“We felt excited and proud because something that we built ourselves was actually heading to space!” added Kimberly.

Several hours later, with help from the GPS tracker, they recovered their launcher in the middle of a cow field. It was mostly intact, but Loki and R2-D2 had snapped off on impact; they were found a short distance away.

Lego Launcher

The girls’ homemade weather balloon reached heights of 78,000 feet.

The family headed to a nearby Starbucks and used the free Wi-Fi to see the data the tracker had collected. They hypothesized their balloon had reached about 20,000 feet, Kimberly said.

“It turns out that it went 78,000 feet! When we saw (the GoPro footage) on mom's tablet, we were mesmerized! Shocked! We could see the blackness of space!”

Lego Loki Launcher: Success.

So, what’s up next for the Yeung family?

“I've always got ideas bouncing around in my head, but for now, the focus is on school,” Winston said. “(The Lego Loki Launcher) was a fun way to wrap up a great summer.”

– Katy Bowman