A Chicken Sandwich Hitches a Balloon Ride to the Stratosphere

Sometime, science is just plane fun. 

From the New York Times... I guess the old gray lady has fun too


In February, World View Enterprises collaborated with Ball Aerospace on a balloon test flight that collected images from the atmosphere. This month, the same vehicle is to carry a KFC chicken sandwich on a four-day demonstration flight. Credit World View

An Arizona company, World View Enterprises, plans to send tourists on balloons into the stratosphere, high enough to see the curves of Earth and the blackness of space.

But its initial passenger will be a tangy fried chicken sandwich.

The company said on Tuesday that the first flight of a fully equipped high-flying balloon would take off as soon as June 21, with a payload of fast food.

Perhaps you’ve seen the KFC television commercial where Colonel Sanders, (played by the actor Rob Lowe), riffs on John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech.

KFC Zinger commercial. KFC

The Zinger, a spicy fried chicken sandwich that’s hand-breaded, with mayo and lettuce, isn’t new, but until this spring it wasn’t sold in the United States. Created in 1984 for restaurants in Trinidad and Tobago, it is now sold in more than 120 countries. George Felix, KFC’s director of advertising, said the concept of the marketing campaign was the dual launch on the ground in the United States and to the stratosphere.

"As you can imagine, when we first heard about it, we laughed our heads off,” said Jane Poynter, World View’s chief executive. “And when we picked ourselves off the floor, we actually thought it was really, really cool.”

World View was finishing up development of balloons it calls stratollites — a mash-up of stratosphere and satellites — and while a stratollite will not reach the 62-mile-high threshold regarded as the edge of space, it is also much cheaper than a sending a rocket to orbit.

KFC signed up to take part in the demonstration flight, which will test the full complement of technologies, including solar panels to generate power and the navigational technology that will tap into prevailing winds to steer to any part of the world and then hover over a particular spot. “It’s really a shakedown cruise,” Ms. Poynter said.

Photo
The World View stratollite balloon being prepared for launch in February. Credit World View

If all goes according to plan, the balloon will stay aloft for at least four days. Earlier stratollite flights, testing various components, were in the air for less than a day.

Ultimately, stratollites could prove a boon to atmospheric and astronomical research, serving as platforms for long-term observations. Downward-looking radar could provide data to generate earlier and more precise storm warnings. Other stratollites could serve as internet relays over remote parts of the world.

Kenneth Howard, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that although computer models that predict hurricanes and tornadoes have improved, “they’re data-starved.”

Ground-based weather radar is blocked by mountains. The curvature of the Earth limits the area that a radar station can monitor. And there is no radar coverage at all for weather over vast stretches of the oceans.

Mr. Howard envisioned stratollites loitering over Tornado Alley, the slice of the Central United States where the storms strike most often. Weather models can point out two or three days in advance where storms could spawn tornadoes. A stratollite could then be sent to that location to quickly spot tornadoes as they begin to spin and perhaps give people a half-hour or more of warning to seek shelter. (Current warning times are less than 10 minutes on average, Mr. Howard said.)

Mr. Howard said the agency hoped to fly several demonstrations of radar and other weather instruments on World View stratollites in the coming year.


Weather forecasting and the other robotic uses of stratollites weren’t part of World View’s original business plan. Tourism was.
o.

Companies like Blue Origin, founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, and Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, are promising rides all the way to space inside rocket-powered vehicles, offering a few minutes of exhilaration and weightlessness in what are essentially supersize roller coaster rides.

Ms. Poynter and Taber MacCallum, World View’s chief technical officer, had also worked on the balloon and craft that lifted Alan Eustace, a Google executive with an adventurous bent, to near the top of the stratosphere for a record-setting parachute dive in 2014.

Photo
A whimsical illustration of a Zinger chicken sandwich in space, part of the KFC advertising campaign. Credit KFC

Ms. Poynter and Mr. MacCallum, who are married, figured there could also be a market for tourism rides that might not go as high as Blue Origin’s or Virgin Galactic’s but that would last much longer while offering a similar view of Earth.

A much larger balloon would lift a spacious cabin to the stratosphere. During a gentle flight lasting five or six hours, six passengers could walk around and gaze out the windows at the Earth below.

Amenities would include a bar and a bathroom.

Photo
An artist’s conception of a World View Voyager balloon carrying six passengers and two crew members on a flight in the stratosphere. Credit World View

That plan is still in progress. Although the company is not saying when it hopes trips with paying passengers would begin, World View is taking reservations at $75,000 per person. A test flight with a full-size simulator of the cabin is scheduled for later this year.

Along the way, the company discovered a market beyond tourists. “People kept calling. ‘Could you fly this payload?’” Mr. MacCallum said. “NASA gave us a contract to fly payloads. And then other folks called and said, ‘Could you fly a radar? Or could you do this?’ All these ideas started coming in, and we were just like, in the beginning, kind of flat-footed about this.”

World View added stratollites to its business portfolio. It plans as many as 12 stratollite flights this year.

First up is the chicken sandwich mission. People will be able to watch the stratollite launch at kfcin.space, a web address that expands into yesweareactuallysendingachickensandwichto.space. KFC plans several promotional events during the four-day trip, including dropping a single coupon for someone to find on the ground.

Given that it is a first flight of the full stratollite system, KFC planned, as NASA would, for what it would do in case something went wrong. “It’s a real space mission,” laughed Mr. Felix of KFC. “We’ve got a lot of different contingencies. We know there are a lot of things out of our control.”

For Ms. Poynter, the trip will provide a way to show new, cheaper routes to space and not-quite-space.

“If you fly a chicken sandwich to space, why can’t you fly anything?” she said. “You’re really showing how you can make space accessible to almost anyone at almost anytime for almost anything.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 14, 2017, on Page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: A Balloon Ride Near Space Finds Its First Passenger: A Fried Chicken Sandwich. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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