Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken is planning to fly its Zinger sandwich up to the stratosphere and back on a World View balloon platform. But no, the mission isn’t merely a publicity stunt.
For World View Enterprises, the flight is expected to serve as a four-day shakedown cruise for its “Stratollite” system, which could eventually send military and commercial imaging payloads to the edge of the atmosphere for months at a time.
“When KFC first brought this to us, we had a good chuckle,” World View CEO Jane Poynter told reporters during a teleconference today. But then the Arizona-based company realized there could be a serious point behind the project.
“If you can fly a chicken sandwich to the edge of space … you can fly really just about anything,” Poynter said.
Besides, the payment that KFC is providing for the publicity will cover the cost of the test flight, including the expense of beaming down live HD video from a height of 60,000 to 75,000 feet, Poynter said.
Neither she nor KFC brand communications director George Felix would say precisely how much the fast-food chain is paying, but Felix said “we’re fully confident that this is going to be worth every penny.”
For reference, NASA has paid World View as much as $440,000 for balloon test flights.
World View already has sent a variety of payloads to the stratosphere on Stratollites, which are meant to provide some of the capabilities of satellite missions on low-cost balloon platforms. But those earlier missions lasted only a matter of hours. The chicken-sandwich flight is meant to be the first flight stretching over multiple days.
World View’s chief technology officer and co-founder, Taber MacCallum, said the helium balloon and its roughly 100-pound payload are set to be sent up from an isolated area about 40 miles east of Tucson, Ariz., during a launch window that opens on June 21.
The flight plan calls for the balloon to loiter over the southwestern U.S. for four days, but that time frame could be extended if the balloon (and the sandwich) remain in good shape, MacCallum said. At the end of the mission, the payload would detach from the balloon and glide back to a designated landing area at the end of a steerable parachute.
KFC has already released a commercial that plays off the project, with actor Rob Lowe playing the role of Colonel Sanders.
“Can you actually launch KFC’s world-famous Zinger chicken sandwich into space?” Lowe asks, as he wears a costume that’s a cross between a spacesuit and a Kentucky colonel’s get-up. “The answer is, we certainly hope so. Our entire marketing campaign depends on it.”
“There’s going to be lots of things that the chicken sandwich is going to be doing during this flight,” MacCallum said. “It’s kind of a fun animatronic payload that they’ve put together.”
Felix went into more detail, saying that the sandwich would be enclosed in a “bucket satellite” modeled after KFC’s trademark receptacle. Each of the four days would feature a different activity, starting with a chicken sandwich selfie and moving on to a tweet beam-up, a coupon drop and the unfurling of a KFC flag.
“Nowhere else are you going to hear the term ‘bucket satellite,'” MacCallum quipped.
KFC’s Zinger 1 mission is by no means the first space-themed publicity stunt. In fact, the company sponsored a space shuttle experiment with chicken eggs that was lost in the tragic Challenger explosion in 1986. (The “Chix in Space” experiment was reflown in 1989 aboard the shuttle Discovery.)
Although KFC is billing Zinger 1 as a “space mission,” the Stratollite balloon platform will come nowhere near the internationally accepted 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary of outer space. Felix acknowledged that it’d be better to say the sandwich would approach the edge of space. “We’ve learned a lot about space in the last few days,” he told reporters.
When World View was founded in 2013, the company’s main objective was to provide hours-long tours to the stratosphere in a pressurized Voyager capsule for $75,000 a ticket. Since then, World View has pivoted to the Stratollite concept, but it still intends to fly people someday.
“We’re actually making huge progress,” Poynter said.
Poynter is no longer giving out a timetable for the start of Voyager tours, but she said two more Stratollite missions are scheduled for this summer. MacCallum, who is Poynter’s husband, said a full-scale mass simulator for the Voyager capsule is due to be flown by the end of the year.