Interview: Seattle girls launch a balloon spacecraft to the edge of space, and NASA takes note

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Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung at GeekWire this week.

Our guests on the GeekWire radio show this week are Rebecca Yeung, 10, and Kimberly Yeung, 8 — two sisters from Seattle who built a spacecraft out of wood, broken arrow shafts and a high-altitude balloon, sending it to the edge of space this past weekend. Their project — and especially their handwritten “lessons learned” — captured the attention of thousands of people, including an exec at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

The sisters join us with their dad, Winston Yeung, to tell us the story of their mission, and what’s next for them.

That interview begins in the second segment of the show, at 9:30 in the audio player below. Download the MP3 here. Continue reading below for an edited transcript of the conversation, as well as video highlights from their project.

In our opening news segment, we recap Apple’s big iPhone and iPad news, and explain why Seattle is examining rental benefits given to tech employees. And our App of the Week, InboxVudu, is our favorite way of managing email overload. GeekWire’s Molly Brown and James Risley join us for the news segment.

Transcript of interview with Rebecca, Kimberly and Winston Yeung: 

Todd Bishop: The reason we have the two of you here is because you captured the attention of so many people this past weekend. You sent a balloon spacecraft to the edge of outer space. Rebecca, you’re 10 years old. Can you tell us why you did this? Why you and your sister and your dad decided to even start on this project?

Rebecca: Well, part of the reason is dad saw some videos of this and showed it to us, and Kimberly and I thought it sounded like fun. The other part is Kimberly and I go to a really great school that really encourages science and inquiry thinking and risk taking and making mistakes.

Todd: That’s great. I think “inquiry thinking” is not something that most 10 year olds would talk about. You got this idea to send a balloon up into space. What did you do then? What happened next? Kimberly, do you want to jump in?

Kimberly: Then we went to the store and bought some supplies for it. We also found this really awesome website called High Altitude Science where you can buy different things just for weather balloons.

Winston Yeung: Originally, I was actually hoping to just show them the basics of project management. I do a little bit of that at work, and I said, “Okay, it’s time for you guys to learn how to put a budget together, how to come up with a schedule, and a list of tasks,” and all that fun PM-type stuff. We’re trying to figure out a project that we could do. One thing led to another, and this balloon was the idea that we settled on. Getting the supplies was pretty straight forward, like Kimberly said, ordering a lot of the balloon-specific supplies from High Altitude Science made it pretty easy. Then a few trips to the hardware store for all the other nuts and bolts.

Rebecca: Home Depot.

Winston: And the corner store and a couple of local places, a few little things here and there.

Todd: But you learned some things along the way, didn’t you girls? Because didn’t you start with PVC pipe? Walk us through that. What happened when you tried to use the PVC pipe as the structure of this balloon spaceship?

Rebecca: We were originally using PVC pipes like you said. Then once we had completed that part, we weighed it and we found out that it weighed 1,350 grams, which was too much because we still hadn’t added all the rope and the parachute. Then we were planning on adding another camera as well. Then I went away to sleep-away camp and Kimberly and dad decided they needed to do something else, and they took the feathers off some of my broken archery arrows  because those are hollow and really light. They’re made to be light. They used those for the three pieces of wood in the middle instead.

Todd: Okay, very good. One of the things that you did, and we can talk about this later on, but you put together a sheet that showed your lessons learned. I guess that was one of the lessons that you learned, to experiment with different things. What do you think you learned here that you’ll be applying to other things in your life? Can you talk about how you took lessons from this and how it’ll reshape or shape what you’re going to be doing down in the future? Go ahead Kimberly.

Kimberly: Well, one of the lessons learned that we learned was to always be optimistic because there are a lot of things that we thought were going wrong, when, in fact, everything was going right.

Todd Bishop: That was the GPS, right? Can you tell the story of the GPS and what that was like when the balloon was up in the air?

Kimberly: We had read that our GPS could only work for 21,000 feet up in the air, so we were really confused about what our spacecraft was doing. It turns out that it can go all the way to 60,000 feet, and so we were really worrying for nothing.


Todd: This is from your lessons learned page, “We thought everything went wrong, but everything went right, example, the spot trace maximum altitude misled our expectations.” That’s a really, really good lesson. The other thing that you drew from that was to essentially use data and base what you do on facts. Tell us more about that Rebecca.

Rebecca: Before we retrieved it and before we got the signal that it had landed, we were just speculating, wondering why it might have only gone to 21,000 feet. We were thinking of maybe there was a leak in the balloon and it was just cruising, or maybe the lift, the pull of the balloon had balanced itself out with the weight of our payload, which is everything underneath the balloon. So we had been speculating, coming up with theories, and none of them were right.

When we retrieved it, we still thought that it had only gone to 21,000 feet, but when we took a look at the data that we had on our flight computer, which measures altitude, GPS position, temperature, pressure, speed, and our altitude, we saw that it got up to 78,461 feet up.

Todd: This past weekend. Where did you go and what happened when you got there? Just walk us through how this balloon got up into space.

Winston: Sure, sure. The night before, while we were still here in Seattle, we were checking weather. Actually we were checking weather for three days straight up to the Saturday because we wanted to make sure we had a good launch site. We planned the launch site based on where the predicted destination was going to be. There’s a few online predictors that give you guidance as to where it is based on your lift and the weight and all that kind of stuff. We ended up driving out and staying out in a motel in Moses Lake in central Washington because these guys spent a ton of time on Google Maps looking for flat areas, looking for farmland essentially, because we didn’t want it to land in a lake. We didn’t want it to land in, where else, a mountain …

Kimberly: Yes.

Winston: … and where’s the other?

Kimberly: Hanford Nuclear Plant

Winston: Yeah, we didn’t want it to land in the nuclear facility at Hanford.

Todd Bishop: Yeah, there’s all sorts of issues with that.

John Cook: Probably would never get it back if you landed it there.

Winston: Probably not, probably not.

John: Maybe it would be shot down by a drone or something if it flew over there.

Winston: Yeah, so we stayed out in Moses Lake. We woke up that morning and, just like the weather said, the clouds were rolling in. We actually spent a fair bit of time that morning trying to make a go, no-go decision.

Todd: Just like Elon Musk.

Rebecca, Winston and Kimberly Yeung.
Rebecca, Winston and Kimberly Yeung.

Winston: Quite, yeah. It was a good thing that they did, because we left the decision totally up to these guys. They were checking the weather. We had to factor in the fact that the wind was going to be stronger on Sunday, the next day. Instead of landing potentially in a cow field, it might have gone over the mountain range, closer to Spokane. We also had to weigh into the fact that we didn’t have a hotel reservation for that night. There was a lot of things that these guys took into consideration, and eventually they said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

Todd: Got it. So you went out. You found the spot in a wide-open space.

Rebecca: Well, originally we were planning to launch from a field in Stratford, which is about 30 minutes drive north of Moses Lake, but then we got there we realized that we probably shouldn’t because there’s too many people and electrical wires. Then we turned around, and there was a smaller road off the road that we were on. We pulled in and parked at an intersection and launched from there.

John: Where did you find it after it came down from 78,000 feet?

Rebecca: It was in a cow field, very, very east of the farmland in central Washington. It was right on the edge.

Kimberly: We had to climb three barbed wire fences to get over.

John: Wow. Did you get hurt at all?

Kimberly: No. We might have got pricked a few times.

Todd: How close was it to where you thought it would be?

Kimberly: Because it’s a GPS, it was actually really precise.

John: So as close to where you thought it would end up at the end of the flight?

Rebecca: No, not really. It was exactly where the GPS told us it would be, but the predictor that we made, our calculations were a little bit off. We had forgotten to factor in the weight of our rope and also the weight of all of the tape we used to secure it, so our calculations were a little bit off there.

John: About how far off would you say it was from your original calculation?

Rebecca: Well, it was supposed to be all north of (Interstate 90_. All of its curves would go north of the 90, and it would land north of the 90. It went really south of the 90. Then it curved back up above and then went south again. Then it ended up landing south of the 90, so pretty far off from where we thought it would go.

John: There was something special right near the crash. When you came and actually found it, what was that special thing that it almost landed in?

Kimberly: A pile of cow poop.

Todd: You wrote a “lessons learned” page in your notebook, in your project binder. What was your biggest lesson learned. Rebecca, you want to share the thing that surprised you most, what you learned from this project?

Rebecca: Always be optimistic and rely on the data. Don’t speculate. Rely on the facts.

Winston: That day was actually a fairly emotional one for our family in the sense that when we launched we were so excited. The girls were dancing, and we were just giddy. Then, of course, you have to wait and track the balloon. After we reached this point where we expecting to lose the signal but didn’t, our spirits really sort of sank and sank. We started doing exactly what they were saying and speculating and coming up with all kinds of weird wacky theories. We were feeling pretty down until we got another notification from the GPS, signal acquired. We were having lunch in a sandwich shop, and we yelped. We were so excited. Everyone was looking at us. So we went from a really low-low to a real high.

Then, of course, we go off and chase this thing and get to the point where it’s landed. It was kind of a slog to get out there. We were sure if we were going to find it. We weren’t sure what condition it was going, so we were sort of getting a little down again. Then we find it, and we go bananas once more. The real kicker was after we hike all the way back to the car, the first thing we did was drive to a Starbucks to download the data. We looked at it, and it was in meters. It said 20 something meters, and we thought is that right? We could believe that it actually had broken far beyond the barrier. We yelped for a second time that day.

Rebecca: 21,000 meters.

Todd: One of the things that was really interesting and captured a lot of people’s attention was that lessons learned, that handwritten page, I’ll link to that from the show notes on the podcast, but there was someone very interesting who, actually, I think, initially contacted GeekWire based on our story to get in touch with you. Who got in touch with you to find out about your project?

Kimberly: From the California Institute of Technology, I think.

Winston: Mr. David Seal who is the supervisor from the Mission, Engineering, and Planning Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA.

Todd: Yes, NASA. How does that make you feel girls that NASA is interested in what you did, and especially in your lessons learned? They’re very interested in the scientific understanding that you got from this project. How does that make you feel?

Rebecca: Really, really thrilled and happy, because we were really closely following the Curiosity Rover on Mars and the New Horizons project around Pluto and beyond. We thought it was really awesome, because we really like NASA, and we were so happy that they were paying attention and contacting us.

John: Do you think you want to go in and continue to study science and engineering or aerospace? Is that something that you want to continue to do?

Kimberly: Definitely. When I grow up I want to be a robotic engineer.

John: What do you want to build? More spacecraft, maybe, that go higher?

Kimberly: All kinds of robots, really.

Todd: That’s Kimberly and she’s 8. What about you Rebecca? You’re 10 years old. Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?

Rebecca: I’m not entirely sure. Something that has to do with STEM because I really like the idea and concept of STEM.

Todd: We got a lot of parents out there who are listening to this show. As girls and kids who have gone through this with your dad, what advice would you give to parents to teach their kids about science and get them involved in these areas? What does your dad do right? What do you like about what your dad does to get you involved in these things?

Rebecca: Well, I guess when we were little, dad would let us be special helpers whenever we were building something. Like when daddy was a building a bookshelf for our house that had a area where we put the TV on that swings, so one side’s a picture and the other side’s a TV. Then he let us help him with that handing him screws and stuff. That was really fun.

Todd: He made sure you were involved in the process …

Kimberly: Yeah.

Todd: … just as a first starting point. That’s really great.

Kimberly: Even though he might have done it quicker without us.

Todd: Winston, what kind of advice would you give to other parents out there if they’re thinking about, maybe not sending a balloon to outer space, but any kind of ambitious project that would teach their kids about science and technology?

Winston: I’m not one to give advice, but I would say, at least for our girls and our family, letting them have as much hands-on opportunities as possible. I mean that sounds a little trite, but for us it’s literally hands-on where we do a lot of projects in the garage, and we do a lot of stuff where we making things and building things and fixing things. Yeah, they can use a power screwdriver, and sure, they can use a handsaw with the right safety conditions. We’ve been doing that pretty early on. Now they’re at the point where they can operate some of these things on their own, safely and supervised. At least now I think they have the confidence to start to build some of these things by themselves.

John: What’s next? What are you going to build next? What’s the next project?

Rebecca: We’re thinking of launching another weather balloon, but this time we’re going to have it be a bigger balloon, a 600-gram balloon. Our last balloon was 350 grams. Those are the sizes that balloons come in. Maybe this time it will go up faster, and we’ll be able to have our camera batteries last long enough to see the landing.

Todd: Well, if everything is right with the world, you two will soon be recruited by companies like Blue Origin and Vulcan in much the same way that colleges and NFL teams recruit kids out of high school these days.

John: And GoPro.

Todd: We wish you all the best. It’s been great talking with you. We’ve been talking with Rebecca, Kimberly and Winston Yeung. We will link to all of their videos and especially their lessons learned from the show notes on this episode on geekwire.com. Thank you all for being here.

Rebecca: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Kimberly: Thank you.

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