A Chicken Sandwich Hitches a Balloon Ride to the Stratosphere

Written by Kenneth Chang

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.

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.

The agency in charge of the campaign, Wieden & Kennedy, approached World View to help send the sandwich up.

“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.

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.

Read more at New York Times

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