No one is worried about the sandwich. Instead, they’re monitoring the wind conditions and the weather patterns. For weeks, they’ve been testing pressure chambers and solar panels. There is a robotic arm to check, and all of the cameras have to be tested. But the chicken sandwich? It will be fine. Frozen, but fine.
Sometime this week (maybe Saturday), Kentucky Fried Chicken, in cooperation with Arizona-based World View Enterprises — a launch provider company aiming to pioneer “the edge of space”— will send a KFC Zinger Chicken Sandwich to space. Or rather, to the edge of space, to the stratosphere, where it will hang out for a few days, hovering above the earth sending videos and selfies back down to the surface as part of a months-long advertising campaign. Up in the stratosphere, there’s less gravity, but at temperatures as low as minus 90 degrees, the sandwich will be pretty frozen, safe and pretty.
“I mean, we’re taking a chicken sandwich to space,” says Jane Pontyer, the CEO of World View Enterprises, laughing. “It certainly has a pretty significant giggle factor to it.” What’s even more laughable is that KFC and World View aren’t even the first ones to bother with this same stunt. For at least five years, civilians and companies alike have been shooting food and beverages into space for publicity and laughs. But how on earth do you pull it off?
To be exact, the KFC Zinger, in all its space flight glory, isn’t actually going to space: It’s going up to the stratosphere, which is technically not “space,” to hang out for a few days. The stratosphere is part of the earth’s atmosphere (between the trophosphere and mesophere, for those of you who care). There’s still gravity there, though a tiny bit less, and it extends up to about 31 miles above the earth.
When we hear about someone sending something to space, they are almost always sending it into the stratosphere. To get something all the way out of earth’s atmosphere requires a rocket, and rockets are expensive. The fuel and oxidizer alone for Space X’s 9 v.10 rocket — aka the notable March 2017 rocket launch by billionaire Elon Musk’s “space transport company” — cost an estimated $200,000. Estimates put the cost of the reusable rocket launch at $5,113 per pound, or about $6 million. But to get to the stratosphere, all you really need is a very fancy balloon.
The balloons that World View operates look like jellyfish while they inflate. Similar to hot air balloons, the “stratollites” inflate on the ground and travel straight up. But unlike a hot air balloon, they are closed at the bottom and inflated with helium. The balloons cost less, can be rapidly deployed, and can hover over a specific location for days, weeks, or months. The balloons can carry up to 4,500kg of material and return to the ground at a very specific location. They are very fancy balloons.
For the KFC stunt, the sandwich will be staying in the stratosphere for four days thanks to the development of World View’s stratolitte, which will be equipped with sensors, cameras, and all sorts of other instruments that will allow ground control to monitor the flight as well as direct where the stratolitte flies.
“Up in the stratosphere there is almost no air, so you cannot fly the way you’d fly in an airplane,” Pontyer says. “The easiest way I can explain it is that we are trying to sail the stratosphere.” Pontyer explains that the stratosphere is made up of winds that go in different directions on different levels. By changing altitude, then, the balloon can be moved into different wind streams (found using its onboard laser pulse technology) that will take it where they want to go. World View’s balloons also have the capability to hover over a single spot by moving up and down between wind stream rapidly, via ground control.
Versions of stratolittes are affordable enough that amateurs have used them to send food (and other things) to the stratosphere. One of the earliest Internet-documented examples comes from five Harvard students, who sent a hamburger to the stratosphere in 2012. They sprayed the hamburger with varnish to protect it from the wind, attached a GoPro camera to it, and inflated a balloon. They claimed that their space hamburger reached 90,000 feet before the balloon popped and their hamburger tumbled back down to earth 130 miles away, where they retrieved it from a tree. Since then, amateurs have sent cheese pizza, Coors Light, potato chips, volleyballs, lamb chops, and a disgusting-looking pink icing donut to space. In fact, anyone can send stuff to the stratosphere now. The site sentintospace.com offers a basic kit — including a balloon, locator, space box, and parachute — for $225.00.
But these missions, if you can call them that, are simple and rudimentary compared to the projects being planned and executed by brands. Jose Cuervo used a similar process to send a margarita to space. Using the space program JP Aerospace — a volunteer-based DIY space program — the company launched a margarita in a shaker up into the stratosphere with a balloon in 2015.
The only company to send a food-type-thing all the way out of the earth’s atmosphere and into space (kind of) is the Oregon-based Ninkasi Brewing Company, which sent a canister of yeast into 77 miles up into the exosphere, the outermost layer of the earth’s atmosphere, before it fell back down to earth and was turned into a beer called “Ground Control.” As Wired noted, “Space beer, if nothing else, is quite the conversation starter,” and that alone seems to be the aim of these projects.
“The challenge was how do we make it a really big deal,” says George Felix, KFC’s director of advertising. “The colonel was the ultimate chicken salesman. He believed every day was a great day for fried chicken. He never cut corners, and so we aren’t either.”
And the Zinger’s trip to the stratosphere is certainly like none other before it. Pontyer says World View has been working on the technology to perform this kind of flight for a couple of years now, but that its work with KFC has been pretty rapid fire: They’ve only been planning this mission for a couple of months. “It sounds pretty simple,” she says. “You’re going to slap a sandwich underneath a balloon and take it to space! How hard could it be?”
Pretty hard, she explains. Not because of the balloon, but because of all the things KFC, the client, want the stratolitte to be able to do. It wants HD video footage coming down from the sandwich in real time, and a communication system that works. And of course, World View had to ensure that its first passenger, the sandwich, would be safe. The Zinger will be traveling in a bucket designed to look like KFC products, with a clear lid so that the sandwich can be easily photographed. All of this raises costs. Pontyer won’t confirm how much this mission costs, since a lot of money has been needed to continue development on the stratolitte, but she says that if I wanted to do the same thing without all the bells and whistles with — say — a brownie, it would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
There have been all kinds of tests on the vehicle/ KFC bucket/sandwich home at World View’s new 135,000-square-foot headquarters outside of Tucson, Arizona: vacuum chambers, thermal chambers, altitude testing, and ground testing of all sorts. The glimpses of this testing are hilarious. It’s utterly ridiculous to see a sandwich inside a bubble dome like a space helmet sitting in the middle of a giant metal room.
“It’s fabulously silly. It is silly and it is fun, and I think it’s funny.” Pontyer says. “Space can be very lofty, and it is very lofty, but it’s great to remember that we can have fun sometimes too.”
A lot of things still have to go right before the Zinger sandwich travels a couple dozen miles above the earth. “I’m saying things I never thought I’d say,” Felix laughs. “For example: Our launch window opens soon.” The launch window opened on Wednesday, June 21, but the actual launch depends on the wind and the weather. “People are having a lot of fun with it, and we really like that because that’s the tone of our brand,” Felix says.
Ultimately, World View hopes that the stratolitte will be able to carry people up into the stratosphere. They hope to have a flight that lasts five or six hours and takes a crew of people up in a stratolite to see the earth for $75,000 dollars. By working on this project, World View was able to develop more technology that will help when they’re ready to take people to space. “For now we are totally focused on helping our passenger get to the stratosphere,” Pontyer says, laughing again. “Our first passenger happens to be a chicken sandwich, but the flight itself is a huge milestone.”
Kelsey McKinney is a writer who lives in Washington DC.
Editor: Erin DeJesus