Masters Of The Stratosphere
Bloomberg Businessweek|July 30, 2018

World View has figured out how to keep a balloon stable in near space. Interested in a ride?

Ashlee Vance

The chicken sandwich has to get to space.

This is what everyone at World View Enterprises Inc. was thinking as they set to work in the predawn hours of June 29, 2017, at the Page Municipal Airport in Arizona. KFC Corp. had hired World View, a maker of high- altitude balloons, to ferry a Zinger, which consists of a spicy breaded chicken fillet topped with lettuce and a little mayonnaise on a sesame seed bun, through the upper reaches of the atmosphere and into the heavens. The publicity stunt would result in glorious images of the sandwich set against the stark black backdrop of space, and it would announce World View and its balloons to the paying public. “At first we thought it might not be a good idea,” says Andrew Antonio, director for business development at World View. “People would think we’re the chicken sandwich company, and that would be really bad. But we were just starting out, and ultimately this seemed like the perfect opportunity to use millions of dollars in KFC’s ad budget to tell our story.”

The Zinger launch preparations were intense. In the months leading up to the flight, nondisclosure agreements were put in place and signed. Rob Lowe was hired as a spokesman. A team of engineers built a solar-powered, animatronic KFC bucket that could tweet, take selfies, and house the sandwich beneath a protective glass dome. Zingers were tested in thermal vacuum chambers to see how they would react to pressure and temperature extremes. Then, just ahead of the launch, a group of food artists took over a local KFC and cooked dozens of Zingers, coating them with strange substances to make them beautiful. The Zingers were lined up and judged like pageant participants, and one was finally anointed the hero sandwich, the one with the fowl charisma and fast-food fortitude to brave the rigors of space in the name of over-the-top marketing.

On launch day, the World View team attached the Zinger payload to the end of a long strip of polyethylene laid out on the tarmac. Against a desert backdrop of thirsty grasslands and burnt-orange plateaus, the plastic slowly filled with helium and started to take the shape of a massive teardrop. Lowe, doing his voice- over work, went through a countdown sequence. “Stand by to give status report when called. Launch systems? Aerodynamic descent systems? Balloon systems? Digestive systems? Roger, we are a go for launch for the Zinger 1 bucket satellite.” And up the Zinger went, to 67,143 feet, streaming video as it rose. Did it make it all the way to space? Not quite. Did it stay up for only 17 of the planned 96 hours? Yes. But who cares? KFC got its ad campaign, and World View got a heck of a lot more than that.

Founded in 2012, World View had only ever flown its balloons, called Stratollites, for a few hours in one go. The chicken sandwich mission represented its maiden voyage toward something more significant—a time when its balloons could sail the winds of the stratosphere for thousands of miles and then hover over a point on Earth for days or even months. The KFC test helped fund research and development around the Stratollite’s avionics systems, solar panels, and communications. In the year that’s followed, World View’s researchers have come up with techniques to build durable balloons and software and sensors that exploit previously unknown nuances of the stratosphere. The company has also raised $42 million from venture capitalists hoping it will alter the way we take images of Earth, predict the weather, and, one day, get tourists into space.

“Balloons have been around for decades but have never really been used in a way where there is navigational control,” says Jane Poynter, World View’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “Our rather genius engineers have figured the winds in the stratosphere out.”

The history of high-altitude balloons goes back to the late 18th century, when the French, in particular, demonstrated a gift for releasing huge volumes of hot air into casings of rubberized silk that would float up into the skies. One of the first flights took place in 1783, with a sheep, a duck, and a rooster hovering for 8 minutes at 1,500 feet over Versailles. Not long after that, humans decided to attach themselves to the things, giving the public and militaries around the globe a new frontier to explore—and a new way to look at their home.

Things really started to get interesting in the middle of the 20th century, as a series of adventurous, brilliant, foolish people decided to see exactly how high balloons could go and what a human body hanging beneath them could take. The U.S. and Russia took to endurance ballooning with the same competitive fervor they would later display with rocketry. Without some protection, people tend to lose consciousness from oxygen deprivation at 50,000 feet, and bodily fluids boil at 63,000 feet, but these factors were apparently only mild deterrents. Individuals were initially crammed into tiny, crude gondolas with often untested safety systems. Many of the results were as expected, with people passing out during their journeys, freezing, and generally being tortured for hours or days—that is, when they didn’t die.

One of the great heroes of this era was Joe Kittinger, a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He was the kind of guy willing to have a rectal thermometer inside him for 48 hours, or chew his way out of a safety harness—yes, these things happened—if that’s what it took to get his ballooning job done. In 1957 he was packed into a gondola beneath a balloon for a mission dubbed Manhigh. Despite a major mishap with his oxygen supply system, Kittinger set a record by rising to 96,000 feet. In 1960 he topped himself by going to 102,800 feet and then jumping out of his gondola. He dropped for four and a half minutes before engaging his parachute, reaching 614 miles per hour at one point, and repeated the same words over and over as he neared the ground: “Thank you, God. Thank you.”

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