updated 12/23/2010 3:48:01 PM ET 2010-12-23T20:48:01

A panel of NASA judges will convene early next year to pick the best design among a number of competing space crafts. But they'll be vetting paintings and sculptures, not rovers and orbiters.

In October, NASA and the online crafts marketplace Etsy teamed to launch "Space Craft," a contest in which entrants share original handmade items or works of art inspired by the space agency and its programs.

Contestants submitted more than 1,000 entries in three categories original 2-D art, 2-D reproductions and original 3-D art according to Adam Brown, press manager at Etsy.

The online Etsy community has whittled those entries down, choosing 40 finalists in each of the three fields, Brown said.

The finalists span a wide range of media, styles and degrees of whimsy. One finalist in the 3-D category, for example, is a fleece space shuttle hat, complete with a smiling Hubble Space Telescope attached via a grapple arm. [ Photo of space shuttle hat ]

The next step comes early next year.

"Next, a panel of judges from NASA, Etsy and additional guest judges will vote to determine the Best in Category and Grand Prize winners," Brown wrote in an e-mail. "The judging event is to be held in February 2011."

Winners will be announced shortly thereafter, in advance of the scheduled April launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, he added.

The grand prize includes a $500 shopping spree on Etsy, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch an upcoming shuttle launch, Brown said. The "best in category" winners each receive a $250 Etsy shopping spree and a gift package of NASA and Etsy merchandise.

Winning artworks, or reproductions of them, may also be flown on a future shuttle mission, at NASA's discretion, Brown added.

To view the finalist artworks in all three categories, visit the Etsy site here.

NASA's goal in helping stage the contest is to engage a large audience that may not follow space exploration closely. The online Etsy community has 5.6 million members, and 96 percent of them are women, NASA officials said.

"The contest reaches an important audience NASA would like to better engage to help share the excitement that is America's space program," Doug Comstock, director of Partnerships, Innovation and Commercial Space in NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. "These craftspeople will bring new perspectives that can help communicate NASA's mission and inspire our next generation of explorers in new ways."

You can follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall.

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