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One small step for Hello Kitty

Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Space. It used to be called “The Final Frontier.” Evidently now, if you have a weather balloon, space seems to have become just another fun Saturday afternoon.

Recently, a 13-year-old girl launched a balloon with the payload of a Hello Kitty doll more than 90,000 feet into space as part of her seventh-grade science project. My junior high science project paled in comparison: I brought in my guinea pig named Ham and showed how I trained it to squeak at the sound of crunching lettuce. I got a C-. The teacher said it lacked “scientific design and methodology,” but I think I got graded down because Ham thought his finger was a leafy green.

But back to the idea of launching things into space. It would appear that ordinary people have been using weather balloons to launch all kinds of things into the stratosphere. Here’s a list of some of the stuff that has ballooned into the heavens:

• A plate of sushi

• A movie prop of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber

• A Lego Man

• Home plate from the New York Mets stadium

• A Twinkie

Oh, a balloon also launched Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France yellow jersey into space, but it was disqualified for using performance-enhancing gases. (The balloon vehemently denied it.)

Be that as it may, I got to thinking: How does one go about launching something into space?

Well, there are several sites on the Internet that offer all the equipment you will need. One company offers an “Altitude Balloon Package” for $1,495. This includes not only the balloon, but also a GPS tracking device, a 1080p HD camera, a parachute, and even a waterproof recovery note. The helium is not included, but they recommend buying a canister of it from Party City. Party City? Whoever thought that Party City would be connected with spaceflight? I could hear NASA now:

“Apollo 11, this is Houston Control. We got a 50 percent off coupon from Party City. You guys need any streamers or napkins or paper cups?”

“Roger, Houston, that would be a go for the streamers. Neil wants to know if they have something that has Spider-Man on it.”

“Roger that, Apollo. We’ll take care of that. Stand by for lunar landing sequence.”

“Um, Houston, one more thing. Buzz was wondering if we could get some Bozo the Clown plates as well.”

“Ten-four on the plates, Apollo. Now can we prepare for that lunar entry?”

Needless to say, we eventually did land on the moon. There was no mention of party favors, but that’s the stuff conspiracy theories are made of. Now, on to the topic at hand.

Let’s say you have all the equipment you need for a launch. The next question is: What do you want to send into space?

I suppose everyone’s choice will be different. I have come up with my own list of special things to launch:

• My Ernie Banks rookie baseball card. After spending his entire career with the Chicago Cubs without playing in a World Series, I figure he deserves a lift.

• My 45 rpm record of Steve Martin’s “King Tut.” I think space would be a nice change of scenery for a guy who was born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, and got a condo made of stone-a.

• A photo of me soaring through the air to make a spectacular catch at the Field of Dreams. That’s one small jump for a middle-aged man, one giant leap for Iowa.

• My souvenir Mayan calendar. If it doesn’t return to earth, it’s not the end of the world.

So now we are all just a weather balloon and a passively stabilized pultruded carbon fiber payload structure with built-in radar reflector away from infinity and beyond. Sure, the price may be steep, but man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a Hello Kitty for?

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He is currently preparing to be to the first person to launch Strawberry Shortcake into space. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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