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Why a private space balloon company is sending KFC chicken to the stratosphere

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For branding and testing out new technologies

World View’s Stratollite vehicle.
Photo: World View

Arizona-based company World View Enterprises has an ambitious goal: send humans to the upper edges of the atmosphere using high-altitude balloons. It’s a dream that’s still years away from being a reality, so in the meantime, the company is aiming to send something a bit smaller to the edge of space: fried chicken.

Today, World View announced that it will be sending Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new spicy Zinger chicken sandwich to the stratosphere for multiple days. The sandwich’s ride is the Stratollite, the company’s balloon vehicle that acts a bit like a low-hanging satellite — except it doesn’t orbit Earth and you don’t need a rocket to launch it. The Stratollite is essentially a high-altitude balloon designed to leisurely float about 100,000 feet up, while carrying instruments or probes that can provide communications services, for instance, or scan the Earth’s surface. For this flight, the balloon will be holding a chicken sandwich.

The mission may seem like a gimmick, but the point is to test out a significant capability for World View. The Stratollite will stay in the stratosphere for four days — the longest the vehicle has ever flown. Up until now, test flights of the Stratollite have lasted between six and 12 hours. But eventually, the company hopes to keep these vehicles in place for months to a year at a time. So the chicken flight could be a big step toward making even longer duration missions a reality. (There’s no real reason the payload has to be a chicken, of course, but why not? Brands helping brands.)

The “Stratocraft” carried up by the Stratollite balloon
Photo: World View

To stay in the upper atmosphere for extended periods of time, the Stratollites are designed to “surf” the high-altitude winds. The vehicles will use data collected by national weather services and also by its own onboard instruments to determine which direction the upper atmosphere winds are headed. The Stratollite can then shift its altitude to ride these winds and remain in the same general location over the Earth. Such a technique will allow the balloon to fly in a circle that’s about a few miles across.

“Think of it as sailing the stratosphere,” World View CEO Jane Poynter told The Verge in February. “We’re sailing with the winds and take advantage of the fact that these winds are moving in all these different directions.”

This flight will be the first one in which all of the different subsystems of the Stratollite are put to the test. Before the company has tested out parts of the altitude control system, for instance, as well parts of the communications system. Now, they’ll all be working together, along with the solar power technology that will provide power to the vehicle for multiple days. Meanwhile, the Stratollite’s payload will weigh about 100 pounds and will mostly just include the chicken sandwich, along with some other unique items such as “the chicken sandwich flying system that keeps the chicken looking good,” according to Taber MacCallum, founder and CTO of World View. A camera will also be on board, and at some point the sandwich will take a selfie.

After this chicken run, World View eventually hopes its Stratollites can provide the same types of services as satellites for a much lower cost, since they don’t have to launch on multimillion-dollar rockets. Poynter thinks they could be particularly helpful for weather research and advanced evacuation warnings. “If you fly a Stratollite over that area, and you fly the radar pointing down at the ground, you get high fidelity ground wind information,” Poynter said back in February. “So you give them hours and hours of warning, so they can really evacuate and get to safety before a tornado comes barreling through the area.”

The KFC Zinger sandwich if it were an astronaut.
Image: FTP Edelman

World View’s ultimate goal is to send people up with these balloons. This tourism venture — called Voyager — would see paying customers gently float to the upper atmosphere for five to six hours, riding inside a fancy cabin with large windows that can overlook the curvature of the planet. All the amenities you could want will be on board, including a bathroom, a bar, and Wi-Fi — for a steep $75,000 a ticket, which you can already reserve online.

But before all that can happen, the chicken has to fly. The KFC sandwich is set to get off the ground sometime toward the end of the month, with the Stratollite’s launch window opening on June 21st. The vehicle will be taking off from a remote site 40 miles outside of Tucson, Arizona and going somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 feet up. World View even plans to live stream the mission — the first time the company has ever done a live broadcast. (And sent a KFC sandwich to the edge of space.)

"We’re excited to be the ones pushing spicy, crispy chicken sandwich space travel forward,” said KFC president Kevin Hochman said in a statement.

Update June 13th, 1:00PM ET: This article was updated to include additional information from a press conference.