When the privately owned company World View was first approached about flying a fast-food chicken sandwich aboard its high-altitude-balloon system, company representatives were amused.
"We had a good chuckle," World View founder and CEO Jane Poynter said during a news teleconference today (June 13). "We thought it was quite funny. But after we thought about it for a minute, we all decided it was incredibly cool."
Now, the fried-chicken sandwich is scheduled to fly on a World View Stratollite balloon system later this month. The payload will sit inside a specially made bucket-shaped container outfitted with a high-definition TV camera and a "chicken sandwich flying system" to keep the food fresh during what is expected to be a four-day flight, said Taber MacCallum, World View's chief technology officer.
The product placement by KFC Corp., a subsidiary of Louisville, Kentucky-based Yum! Brands, will cover nearly all the costs of this long-duration test flight of World View's Stratollite balloon system, Poynter said.
The high-altitude system is being developed to fly weather sensors, communications instruments, cameras and other equipment to altitudes of 60,000 to 75,000 feet (18,300 to 22,900 meters) above Earth — about twice as high as where commercial airliners fly.
Eventually, World View intends to fly tourists and researchers to the near-space environment as well.
George Felix, director of brand communications for Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), declined to say how much the company is spending on the flight.
"We're fully confident this is going to be worth every penny," Felix said during today's teleconference. Weather permitting, World View will attempt to launch its balloon from its test facilities outside Tucson, Arizona, on June 21. [Editor's Note: The launch has been delayed to June 22.] The system is expected to be recovered. The sandwich will be returned to KFC, but it will not be eaten, Felix noted.
During the flight, which will be livestreamed, KFC plans several marketing and social media engagement campaigns, including relaying selected comments posted on Twitter to the high-flying balloon system and conducting a coupon drop, when the vehicle will literally release coupons that will fall to Earth.
World View hopes to parlay experience from the flight into the first of a series of commercial missions for several undisclosed companies and government agencies. The operational missions are expected to begin later this year, Poynter said.
KFC is not the first company to seek publicity in space (or near-space) ventures. In May 1986, Pepsi reportedly paid about $5 million to the Russian space agency for two spacewalking cosmonauts to pose outside the Mir space station with a giant replica of a new Pepsi-can design for a TV commercial.
That same month, U.S. space shuttle astronauts tested a zero-gravity dispenser for Coca-Cola. And in August 1997, cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev, who was commander of the Mir space station at the time, made a television commercial for an Israeli milk producer.
Poynter said the KFC sponsorship "does a really nice job" of paying for the Stratollite test flight. "It gets us a lot closer to having our commercial payloads flying in the very near future," she added.