Update: The Zinger has landed.
Seventeen hours after it captured hearts and minds (and stomachs) by sailing to the edge of space in an experimental strato-craft, the Zinger chicken sandwich has safely returned to Earth. During its jaunt to the stratosphere, the Zinger reached a peak altitude of 67,143 feet and witnessed what has only been glimpsed by a select few: our brilliant blue world against the inky backdrop of space.
Jane Poynter — CEO of World View, the company behind the “Stratollite” that flew the mission — said the Zinger “performed flawlessly.” (It’s high praise for any first time space traveler, let alone one that’s an inanimate chicken sandwich.) Praise for the Zinger also came from Corbin, Kentucky, where Colonel Sanders operated his first fried chicken stand. “From its birthplace in Corbin, all the way to space, we are proud of this out of the world success of KFC,” said Mayor Willard McBurney in a statement emailed to the Zinger News Network.
But the mission wasn’t just a test for the Zinger. It represented an equally important operational trial for the Stratollite and its onboard systems, some of which had never been tested together before. According to Poynter, the craft passed with flying colors. “Within the first few hours of flight, all system test objectives were met, including the keystone altitude control capability, solar power generation and successful distribution, high-definition video downlink, and effective steering of the vehicle,” she wrote in a press release.
The only hiccup in an otherwise successful trip: a small leak in one of the Stratollite’s balloons ended the mission earlier than anticipated, although not before the Zinger could get a glimpse of the Earth from the precipice of space. At 17 hours, however, it was still the Stratollite’s longest flight to date.
So what does the future hold? If the past is any indication, a chicken (or chicken sandwich) may lead to something greater. In 1783, a French chicken preceded humanity by riding in the initial test of a hot-air balloon. If World View has its way, the Zinger’s trip is just the first step towards a future in which high-altitude balloons will carry humans to the edge of space. That’s one small step for sandwiches, but one giant leap for mankind.
Colonel, we have liftoff.
Just think: at this very moment somewhere high above you, there’s an actual chicken sandwich sailing the winds at the edge of space.
At 6:11 AM PT today in Page, Arizona, the Zinger chicken sandwich launched into the stratosphere. For this mission, the Zinger’s rate of ascent had it reaching a height of around 60,000 feet in about five hours of travel. (You can track the Zinger’s exact altitude and speed here.)
The trip marks the first time that both the Zinger and its trusty strato-steed, the Stratollite, will spend multiple days at the edge of space. Like any other good space mission, the launch was not without a morsel of drama. Exceptionally fast winds prompted KFC Mission Command to abort the first attempt at launch and change launch locations from Tucson to Page, which sits at a higher elevation outside wind-bringing pressure systems.
In the coming days, the Zinger will be pretty busy: there are scheduled selfies, tweets, coupon drops, and, of course, a patriotic waving of the flag. (The Stratollite will be undergoing a few important systems test, too.)
But for now there’s plenty of time to reflect on the accomplishment: this is one giant leap for chickenkind.
We’ll have to wait a few more days to watch (chicken sandwich) history
Well, no one ever said that launching a chicken sandwich to the edge of space would be easy. Moments before the Zinger’s liftoff into the stratosphere, KFC flight command — on the advice of World View — decided to scrub launch due to unfavorable wind conditions in Tucson. The timing for the next attempt at launch is being evaluated — with updates to come soon.
The culprit was unexpectedly brisk surface winds. At higher speeds, the Stratollite’s unfilled balloon can catch the wind like a sail and drag the attached gondola — plus any really important chicken sandwich payloads that the gondola might be carrying — along the unforgiving tarmac. While forecasts had predicted calmer winds, that never materialized. Peak winds during the launch window eventually reached a blustery, Zinger-busting 15.5 knots.
The Zinger shouldn’t feel too bad, though. The history of spaceflight is one of frequent delays: indeed, several famous missions have had 6 scrubbed launches before a successful liftoff. Delays were also at least partly responsible for Soviet Union beating America into space in the spring of 1961.
The universe has waited 13.772 billion years for a little spiciness — it can wait a few more days.
The next way humans will get into space is a really, really big balloon
Watch the Stratollite and Voyager in action:
The awe that space inspires
From altitude testing to experimental craft, there are a surprising number of scientific hurdles that need to be overcome before a chicken sandwich can reach the stratosphere. So it can be easy to forget something important: where the Zinger will go is stunningly — even spiritually — beautiful.
Many who have witnessed the vivid blue of our planet from space come back with an altered perspective — about themselves and the world. Researchers call it the Overview Effect. While it’s unclear whether the cause is physiological or cultural, it’s strong enough that astronauts have turned to lives of charity, religion, and transcendental meditation after their return from the void.
But until balloon-craft can take us all to the edge of space — and World View is already accepting reservations for the Voyager, their $75,000 per ride passenger space-balloon — pictures will have to do. Bask in the knowledge that in the immense nothing, there is at least one bright blue something.
The Golden Cassette
For any extraterrestrial beings who might be listening and/or hungry during the voyage of the Zinger chicken sandwich, KFC will be sending a mixtape onboard the bucket-satellite. Dubbed the Golden Cassette, its tracklist includes the voice of (the original) Colonel Sanders as he speaks in radio ads and recounts his first fried chicken operation in Corbin, Kentucky.
Though it may be the most appetizing outreach campaign to date, the Golden Cassette is not the first time our species has sent a mixtape to the cosmos. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977 and now soaring somewhere in interstellar space, brought with it a set of Golden Records: phonographs packed with classical arias, animal calls, anatomical diagrams, pictures of landmarks, and one very famous and too-expensive-to-be-licensed-here rock song. Among its collection of greetings in different languages is one from the son of famed astronomer — and Golden Records curator — Carl Sagan. It simply says, “hello from the children of Planet Earth.”
Not to be outdone in the space greeting department, the bucket-satellite also carries a letter signed by the Colonel. The full text is reprinted below:
Humans have a tradition of weird spaceship designs
It's still going strong.
The craft in the craft
It’s not just the Zinger’s first trip to the stratosphere. To make everything a little spicier, the mission will also be the first for the craft that will carry it: the Stratollite.
Built by a “stratospheric flight company” called World View, the Stratollite is a space balloon and gondola system designed to ferry 4,500 kilograms of equipment to the edge of space. (So, it’s not exactly expected to struggle to lift a chicken sandwich.) A bucket-satellite housing the Zinger chicken sandwich will fasten to the gondola, a rigging devised in part because of the need for better camera angles to film all this.
If there’s anything in favor of the maiden voyage’s success, though, it’s World View’s pedigree. Its executives include former NASA administrators, famed astronauts like Mark Kelly and Ron Garan, and Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum — who have not only founded other spaceflight companies, but who also spent 2 years inside Biosphere 2.
Movies are wrong about what happens in the vacuum of space
Here’s what the Zinger chicken sandwich can teach us about what’s right:
Although tests confirm that the damage wrought by the stratosphere’s lack of warmth and pressure should be minimal, the prep team of the Zinger chicken sandwich isn’t taking any chances. (After all, this thing is going to be livestreamed everywhere.) Before liftoff, both bun and fillet will be treated with polyurethane — the chicken sandwich equivalent of being frozen in carbonite — to prevent the formation of condensation. “Freshin,” a food styling trick, will help protect against discoloration of the lettuce. And mayonnaise, ever the survivor, will make the trek to the edge of space untreated.
While Zingers are new to space, polyurethane is a frequent visitor. In modern spacesuits, it’s often used as a coating for the pressure bladder — the balloon-like lining that maintains air pressure around an astronaut. Polyurethane foam was sprayed on the space shuttle’s External Tank, where it performed the crucial job of keeping 535,000 gallons of fuel from getting too hot. But perhaps the best use of polyurethane in space (besides the Zinger) is still in development: if all goes well, it will serve as the inner lining for inflatable space habitation modules.
Freezing temperatures aren’t the only danger posed by the stratosphere. The atmospheric pressure there is about 1/1000th of what is typically experienced at sea level. And while that difference in pressure turns out to only mildly affect chicken sandwiches — the Zinger experienced a slight “de-gassing” in preliminary altitude testing — it can cause electronics to seriously malfunction.
The power supplies of many electronics use air to insulate and cool. When the air is less dense, like it is at 80,000 feet, it’s less effective at both those important tasks. Mechanical hard drives, which rely on sufficient air pressure to buoy their spindles, also break down at higher elevations.
Electronic altitude sickness is no joke when you’re hoisting a chicken sandwich into space in a custom bucket-craft filmed constantly by multiple, expensive cameras. While the Zinger’s electronic array has survived so far, there’s a lot of pressure on it to perform — and simultaneously not a lot of pressure.
Before its trip into the icy void, the Zinger chicken sandwich will undergo a battery of rigorous testing at NTS, a California facility whose past work has included the International Space Station and Mars expeditionary vehicles. First up: the deep freeze. After four days in temperatures measuring some 80 degrees below zero, the Zinger is expected to emerge, well, cold — but otherwise unscathed.
Where the hell is the stratosphere, anyway?
In just two weeks, KFC will launch the Zinger chicken sandwich into the stratosphere, where it’ll eventually cruise at an altitude of 80,000 feet. But what will it witness there? If it had, you know, senses?
In the stratosphere, the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space are both visible and gorgeous. What isn’t visible, though, is weather. With around 80 percent of the atmosphere’s molecules below it, including most of the world’s water vapor, the air of the stratosphere lacks the right stuff for any real cloud formation. Winds zip along at speeds of 100 miles per hour or more, making it ideal for space balloons. But, oddly, the stratosphere is not entirely cold: the absorption of ultraviolet rays by the ozone layer means the stratosphere gets just a bit warmer as you go higher.
See more about the where of space below:
Flight of the Colonel
Fifty five years after one colonel became the first American to enter outer space, another famous colonel — Colonel Harland Sanders — will join him in the pantheon of the nation’s space pioneers. After weeks of rampant speculation by fans and space-chicken experts alike, sources close to the KFC empresario today confirmed that Sanders plans to launch the Zinger — a spicy, crispy, hand-breaded chicken sandwich — to the edge of space later this month. It will be the first such fried chicken sandwich to accomplish the feat.
Born aloft on a space balloon dubbed the Stratollite, the Zinger will attempt to spend four days sailing in the stratosphere under harrowing, frigid conditions. During that time, KFC flight engineers and scientists plan to carry out a bevy of experiments using tools housed within a specially made bucket-satellite. The operators of the Stratollite — Tucson-based stratospheric flight company, World View — will also test their craft’s flight systems on what is scheduled to be its maiden voyage.
The ascent into the heavens culminates a remarkable journey for Colonel Sanders, who built a 125-country fried chicken empire from one tiny stand in North Corbin, Kentucky. Return here for continuing updates on the Zinger’s progress as the preparation for its mission to space continues.