KFC: The unlikely champion of spaceflight

KFC Zinger space

Libertarians are used to getting asked the question: “Without government, who would fund science?”  The question is often asked specifically of space exploration.  Apparently only the state has the foresight and capital to make such heavy investments.  Even people who typically don’t like big government and its spending tend to think that the “investment” by the state is worth it based on the huge returns of scientific progress that are available.

And while libertarians can point to a number of private spaceflight companies already in existence, such as SpaceX or Virgin Galactic, many or all of them have huge contracts to perform work for governments.  So it’s not really private if the government is paying SpaceX to perform work that would have otherwise been given to NASA.  This is frustrating for free market advocates.

However, an unlikely player has stepped into the spaceflight industry that proves a truly private model can be functional—even if done for the seemingly silliest of reasons.  KFC has launched its Zinger chicken sandwich into space.  Well, it launched it 80,000 feet above the surface of the Earth into the stratosphere, but it’s still very notable.

On the surface, this seems like a big joke and just a marketing stunt by KFC.  People are losing their minds over their view that KFC is just wasting money and have plenty of opinions on where the money would have been better spent.

The Zinger 1 mission, as they call it, is an obvious marketing tactic by KFC, but they would not have done it if they didn’t feel that they would benefit in some way.  They partnered with World View Enterprises for the mission: they added the payload of a Zinger sandwich in a KFC bucket made to look like a satellite to one of World View’s stratollite crafts.  Both parties win: KFC gets a significant marketing campaign and World View is paid for the flight.

This is one of the ways spaceflight—or any other endeavor—should be pursued.  A company may not be able to raise enough of its own capital to create a technology that they believe has promise, so they seek sponsorships from other businesses who have the marketing budgets that can.  “If I slap your logo onto the side of my rocket, will you pay me some money?  I can make your logo bigger than anyone else’s if you pay me more.  And if you pay me enough, you will be the exclusive sponsor from your industry on my rocket.”

The beauty of this is that I’m not suggesting any concepts that are remotely new.  Sponsorships happen all the time.  Ads are placed on websites, commercials are run during television shows, the boards of a professional ice hockey rink are lined with corporate logos, etc.

Of course, the response will be “But sometimes businesses don’t want to sponsor or pay for certain things.  That’s when the government needs to step in to fill that gap.”  But if no businesses want to sponsor an idea or a product, perhaps that’s a signal that it’s not a good idea and that resources are better spent elsewhere.  That doesn’t mean that the idea would never be funded.  An actor can take the risk with his own money and reap huge rewards if it actually does work.  Since it is private money, it makes the actor much more careful about making sure the investment is wise.  The government uses someone else’s money and thus the incentives to be careful disappear.