There's a Fried-Chicken Sandwich Floating in the Stratosphere

A high-altitude vehicle has launched high into the Earth’s atmosphere, with a passenger from KFC.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Why did the chicken cross the troposphere?

To get to the other layer in Earth’s atmosphere.

A fried-chicken sandwich was carried by a giant balloon to the stratosphere on Thursday, where it will float for the next four days, reaching altitudes of 50,000 to 80,000 feet.

The flight is part publicity stunt, part launch test. It’s the product of an unlikely partnership between KFC, the fast-food chicken restaurant, and World View Enterprises, an Arizona-based company that develops high-altitude launch vehicles. KFC was trying to promote its Zinger sandwich, which it first developed in the 1980s for KFC’s locations in Trinidad and Tobago and spread to other countries, but which wasn’t sold in the United States until this April. KFC approached World View and offered to fund a test launch of their launch vehicle, called the Stratollite—if  the sandwich got a seat onboard.

World View initially balked at the idea. “As you can imagine, when we first heard about it, we laughed our heads off,” Jane Poynter, World View’s chief executive, recently told The New York Times. “And when we picked ourselves off the floor, we actually thought it was really, really cool.”

KFC has been advertising the flight for weeks as a journey to space, which isn’t accurate. The boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space is at 330,000 feet above the surface, far higher than the Stratollite can reach.

The flight comes after days of delays because of windy weather conditions near the launch site in Tucson, Arizona. The Zinger, a spicy, hand-breaded sandwich with lettuce and mayo on a sesame-seed bun, rode to the sky inside a bucket-shaped satellite KFC designed for the occasion, attached to the base of the high-altitude balloon. The Stratollite is controlled from the ground, steered along stratospheric winds that push it from one location to another. World View hopes to carry sensors, telescopes, and communications tools to the stratosphere that would track severe weather and aid first responders during natural disasters, hovering over the Earth for weeks or months at a time. Eventually, it also wants to send paying customers for a few hours inside a capsule with windows overlooking the curve of Earth and the darkness of space above.

KFC is the latest example in a long history of brands using the awe and wonder of spaceflight to promote their products, hoping that space sells.

In 1966, Tang, the orange-flavor powdered drink, ran commercials showing astronauts pouring the mix into a “zero-G pouch” during a Gemini flight. In 1985, astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger taste-tested Coke and Pespi in cans modified for spaceflight, with Pepsi unabashedly touting itself as “the choice of the next generation” in commercials on Earth. In 1997, a Russian cosmonaut filmed an ad for Tnuva, a brand of Israeli milk, on the space station Mir.  In 2001, another Russian cosmonaut got Pizza Hut delivered to the space station Alpha, and then shot a commercial for RadioShack on board. “Wherever there is life, there will be Pizza Hut pizza,” a Pizza Hut spokesman told CNN that year. Nissin Foods filmed a commercial for Cup Noodles instant ramen on the International Space Station in 2005. In 2014, Japanese company Otsuka toyed with the idea of sending its energy drink to the moon. The list goes on.

In Earth’s stratosphere, the satellite carrying the Zinger sandwich will be exposed to near-vacuum conditions and below-freezing temperatures. When it returns in a few days, it’ll go uneaten. The chicken fillet has been treated with synthetic materials that will keep it looking fresh after it lands, but which are not fit for human consumption. It will also be, at that point, a four-day-old sandwich. “I’m not sure I would want to eat a chicken sandwich after it sat out for four days,” said Andrew Antonio, the marketing director at World View.