SEATTLE — To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Seattle's iconic Space Needle, the landmark's managers want to put someone into honest-to-goodness outer space.
"We went back to 1962 and questioned why the Space Needle was built," said Ron Sevart, President and CEO of the Pacific Northwest landmark. "It was an optimistic time, a forward-looking time, right in the middle of the space race."
The Space Needle — with its hourglass tower and a top that resembles a flying saucer — embodied the era.
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Inspired, Sevart and his team decided to create a multi-tiered contest to send a member of the public on short ride into space, using a company from the burgeoning private space travel industry.
"The private business of taking people to space is right in front of us, it felt so natural for us to build a contest around that," Sevart said.
To help celebrate the future of space travel, the Space Needle brought in one of its pioneers.
Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to step on the moon, spoke at Monday's formal contest announcement, recounting his Apollo mission and detailing his vision of the future. He said the Space Needle's contest marked another step toward fulfilling the vision of the space program, he said.
"Private industry is going to gradually assume some of the things that government has been able to do only previously," Aldrin predicted. "The ability to continue exploring space is going to be dependent on private citizens engaging in the business of taking people to space."
Aldrin was joined by Sevart as well as Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, a Virginia-based private space travel company; and Richard Garriott, one of a handful of private citizens who have spent time on the International Space Station.
"It's an opportunity for the average person have chance to do something very few people have ever done," said Anderson, whose company has sent seven people to space, hitching rides on Russian rockets.
The contest's trip to space would be a suborbital shot, with about 6 minutes of zero gravity. The fight would last about 30 minutes from takeoff to landing, with the auto-piloted rocket taking two passengers to a height beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers), the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. Training for the flight would take about two days, Anderson said.
The estimated value of the travel package is $110,000. Space Adventures and its partner, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, are still developing the vessels. Anderson estimated that the first flight would take off in about two years.
Garriott, a video-game designer who has invested in private space travel and spent millions to visit the space station, said the prize would be worth the wait. "The most impressive takeaway that I had on the International Space Station was seeing Earth from space. It was truly life-changing," he said.
The Space Needle's contest is the latest in a years-long string of giveaways offering suborbital space rides as prizes. So far, not one of them has made good on the grand prize, but several ventures — including XCOR Aerospace, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin as well as Space Adventures, are aiming to begin commercial suborbital tours in the 2012-2013 time frame.
The contest — dubbed Space Race 2012 — will have several stages. First, entrants are asked to sign up at the Space Needle's website or on its Facebook page. Minimum age for contestants is 18. Sevart is expecting millions of entries. Some of the contest prizes will be awarded during the sweepstakes, which runs through December.
A computer will randomly choose 1,000 people from the sweepstakes to move on to a skill-based competition for the space ride. The chosen entrants will be asked to submit a 1-minute video. Following the video, the public, via a vote, will whittle down the number of contestants.
A fitness challenge will be set up for the top vote-getters, and to conclude, a panel will make the final selection.
The winner will be announced in April 2012, right at the 50th birthday of the Space Needle's opening. (Check the contest rules for full details.)
Sevart cautioned that space travel might not be for everyon. The flier needs to be "both mentally and physical prepared" for the experience.
Built during the space race
The Space Needle was built in 1961 as the nation was in the midst of a space race with the Soviet Union. The tower was the marquee showing at the 1962 World's Fair, which featured exhibits of that era's version of the future.
Fifty years later, the U.S. is stepping forward into a new episode in space travel. The last space shuttle to rocket to orbit landed at the end of its final mission almost two weeks ago. NASA is now looking to private contractors to send astronauts to the space station while it focuses on deeper space travel.
For Garriott, whose father was an astronaut, a contest like the Space Needle's represents another step toward putting space travel within the reach of the public. He envisions that soon, a suborbital space trip will cost as much as an around-the-world plane ticket.
"We're about to enter the barnstorming era of space," he said. "It's not just going to be the U.S. or Russian government sending people to space, it's going to be private individuals."
This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.
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