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On Thursday, a chicken sandwich will boldly go where no chicken sandwich has gone before: space.
Sort of. KFC teamed up with Tuscon, Ariz.-based aerospace company World View to take its Zinger spicy chicken sandwich up to the stratosphere via a high-tech, high-altitude balloon — a trip that will be filmed in glorious high definition for all of us here on Earth.
“[KFC’s ad agency] reached out to us, and you can imagine when we first heard about flying a chicken sandwich to space, we thought it was hilarious. You know, somewhat ridiculous,” says World View co-founder and CEO Jane Poytner. “But then we were like you know what, this is actually really cool.”
Poynter says she is excited about the potential of high altitude balloon flight. Though the technology has been around for decades, she notes that it hasn’t really been improved upon in a significant way. With World View, she aims to change that. And it turns out, KFC’s marketing stunt will actually create a precedent for the 4-year-old company, and for science.
“We get to demonstrate the accessibility of this platform, which is one of our founding tenets that we can fly almost anything, almost anywhere, any time,” Poynter says. “So if you can fly a chicken sandwich to space for a global brand, you can probably fly almost anything.”
The company is also trying to break ground with the KFC Zinger mission, its first attempt at a multi-day flight after more than 50 test missions.
“We haven’t attempted to fly longer than a day, and the reason is that we needed full power systems for that to happen,” she says, adding that solar panels will be used to provide continuous power. “That’s what’s so special for us. We’ve done over 50 flights, but this is the first time we’ve got the actual full production Stratollite vehicle in operation, which is very exciting. It’s a huge day for us.”
Poynter has had a long career in the aerospace field. Her first company, Paragon Space Development Corporation, was the maker of life support systems meant to withstand extreme environments, particularly for astronauts.
Speaking of, Poynter and her husband Taber MacCallum, also World View’s co-founder and CTO, met under some fairly extreme circumstances.
They were members of the first team to live inside the Biosphere 2 in the 1990s. They were sealed inside the research facility for two years, studying how man-made ecological systems could potentially fare in space.
Now, Poynter and MacCallum are figuring out how to observe Earth from great heights for both scientific and commercial means — but not with rockets like the SpaceX’s or Blue Origin’s of the world.
“We get to apply to it modern technologies: 3D printing, solar panels, new battery systems, machine learning. We have the basis of a working technology, so the technology risk is relatively low,” Poynter says. “And then we add all of this incredible new technology on top of it to completely innovate and move into a greenfield, which is an incredibly rare opportunity. I think we are limited by our imagination.”
Here are other insights from Poynter:
On the origins of the company.
“When we started the company, we were focused on taking people up to see the Earth from space. For many years my co-founder Taber MacCallum and I have been trying to figure out ways to get people to space in a really accessible way. One day he comes into my office and says ‘Hey, what do you think about taking people up to space underneath a giant balloon?’ That was the idea we were looking for.”
On how balloons differ from rockets.
“It’s so gentle and it’s the opposite experience to a rocket. Now, like any good space geek, I love rockets, but this is very different. Then when we announced the company to the world, we were flooded with requests from people to do all kinds of things from the stratosphere. And it made us sit up and pay attention. There’s this whole other market here that we had really discounted.”
On who World View’s customers are.
“Our customers on the Stratollite line of business range from defense and civil government to Fortune 500 and 100 companies. A lot of things that you can imagine doing with a satellite you can do with a Stratollite. We have a lot of interest from defense customers for communications in remote locations.
“We also have lots of interest from the weather community because one of the interesting things about weather is we send the these weather balloons up to over land masses all over the world, and nothing above the ocean. And the ocean is where a lot of the weather originates. You can have these Stratollites out over the Pacific and they are getting information about weather patterns way in advance of what we currently do. We’re getting a lot of interest for the potential of being able to provide early warnings for the tornadoes as well.”
On how the company differs from its competition.
“[We’re largely operating in the mesosphere, which] some people call the ‘ignorosphere.’ One of the reasons it’s been ignored is because it’s very difficult to operate there from a technical point of view. It provides this fantastic high altitude vantage point that you get from space, though much closer.
“This Stratollite system enables us to be over an area of interest for long periods of time. That is what differentiates us. We can do it for a long period of time. There are drones that can operate at high altitude in the stratosphere but for very short periods of time, a day or two [at the most] that can carry any significant mass of payload. We’re hoping to be able to operate upwards of a year.
“We want to be able to get people hours in space instead of just a few minutes. Which is really what you get with with other suborbital experiences.”