May 9, 2012 at 3:44 PM ET
University of Arizona law student Gregory Schneider is getting ready for graduation this weekend, for the birth of his third child later this year — and now he'll have to get ready for a spaceflight as well.
Schneider accepted his prize during a Seattle Space Needle ceremony today from none other than 82-year-old Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men to walk on the moon in 1969. The suborbital trip into space, aboard a craft that's yet to go into operation, was the first prize in a "Space Race 2012" contest organized to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Schneider was selected from 50,000 people who entered the contest, and out-competed a fellow finalist, Sara Cook of Washington, D.C., during a last round of physical and mental tests this morning.
Schneider teared up as he talked about what the spaceflight prize meant to him. "The more people we can get to see the world from a different perspective, the closer we can all come," he said.
Just before he awarded the prize, Aldrin also reflected on the opening of the space frontier. "July 20, 1969, changed my life forever," he said, referring to the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing. "Maybe it's not as great as that, but the life of one of these two people is going to be changed when I open up this envelope."
The final rounds
Five finalists came to Seattle for this week's finals, and Schneider and Cook came out on top after racing remote-controlled rovers, putting together a simulated solar panel, and doing mental and physical tasks while floating in an indoor-skydiving arena. This morning, they were brought to the Space Needle for the high-wire finals. The first task was to shinny up a ladder to the very top of the Space Needle's antenna and set off an air horn. Schneider's 29.69-second performance gave him say over whether he went first or second in the final competition.
Then the contestants were hooked up with safety equipment and put out on the Needle's "Halo," a narrow, open-air ring circling the monument's 520-foot-high observation deck. The challenge was to walk around the Halo, periodically writing down the answers to word and trivia puzzles that were posted at 10 points on the course. (Two examples: Unscramble the word PALOLO ... and tell how many stars are in the Big Dipper.)
First Schneider, then Cook, took a turn. The times were recorded, with penalties added for missed answers. The brain-teasers turned out to provide the margin of victory: Cook answered four of them correctly, but Schneider got eight right.
Aldrin marveled at the two finalists' performance: "I've been kind of out and back," he said, "but you wouldn't catch me walking around that Space Needle. I'm afraid of heights."
Schneider said it's been his dream to fly in space, but the main reason he entered the contest was for his children — a 7-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. "I thought of it as an opportunity to inspire my kids," he told me.
Cook, 24, who works for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, was also following through on long-held space aspirations. "I dreamed of being an astronaut when I was a child. ... I just couldn't not enter," she said. And even though she fell just short this time around, she hasn't given up her dream of going into outer space.
"If it became more affordable, I would love to," she said.
It'll be a while before Schneider gets to use his prize, which is valued at $110,000. The flight is being offered by Space Adventures, a Virginia-based travel company, on a craft that is currently being developed by Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace. That development effort hasn't yet progressed far enough to set a date for the start of commercial service.
Schneider thus joins a long list of other contest winners who are waiting to take a spaceflight. Based on the current outlook, the first of those contestants might take suborbital trips in 2013 or so, when Virgin Galactic is expected to begin commercial service with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.
The kinds of trips being planned by Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, XCOR Aerospace, Blue Origin and others taking aim at the suborbital travel market would bring passengers just beyond the 62-mile (100-kilometer) boundary of outer space, then back down to the place they started from. It may not be as high-flying as Aldrin's trip in 1969, but it would give the passengers a few minutes of weightlessness, some roller-coaster thrills, and a view that's even better than the view from the Space Needle. That's what Schneider is looking forward to the most.
"It's going to be absolutely incredible to see the earth ... as a cosmic object that's out there in space," he told me.
Did you get the answers right? APOLLO, and seven stars in the Big Dipper.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.