Ron Sevart, Space Needle CEO, from left, Buzz Aldrin, former astronaut, and space traveler Richard Garriott stand outside the Space Needle on Sunday in Seattle.
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SEATTLE — Organizers want to go beyond Earth to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle.
On Monday, they announced a multi-tiered contest to send a member of the public on a short ride into space using a company from the burgeoning space travel industry.
“The private business of taking people to space is right in front of us,” said Ron Sevart, president and CEO of the Pacific Northwest landmark. “It felt so natural for us to build a contest around that.”
He said the idea came after event organizers explored the circumstances around the opening of the Space Needle in 1962.
The Space Needle — with its hourglass tower and a top that resembles a flying saucer — embodied the era.
“It was an optimistic time, a forward-looking time, right in the middle of the space race,” Sevart said.
To mark the occasion and help celebrate the future of space travel, the Space Needle brought in a pioneer.
Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to step on the moon, spoke at the formal contest announcement, recounting his Apollo mission and detailing his vision of the future.
The Space Needle’s contest is another step toward fulfilling his vision of the space program from more than 50 years ago, 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 into space.”
Aldrin was joined by Sevart; 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 to have a chance to do something very few people have ever done,” said Anderson, whose company has sent seven people into space, hitching rides on Russian rockets.
The trip to space offered through the contest would be a suborbital shot, with about six minutes of zero gravity. The total flight, from takeoff to landing, would last about 30 minutes, with the pilot-less rocket taking two passengers to a height of about 62 miles. Training for the flight would take about two days, Anderson said.
More details will come later as Space Adventures — along with Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace — develop vessels. The cost of the grand prize is about $110,000. Anderson said he estimates the first flight will take off in about two years.
“The most impressive takeaway that I had on the International Space Station was seeing Earth from space, it was truly life-changing,” said Garriott, a computer engineer who has invested in private space travel, and spent 12 days circling Earth.
The contest — dubbed Space Race 2012 — will have several stages. People interested can sign up to enter at the Space Needle’s website through the end of December.
The minimum age for contestants is 18. Sevart is expecting millions of entries.
After the entry period, a computer will randomly choose 1,000 people who will be asked to submit a one-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 before a panel makes a final selection.
The winner will be announced in April 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the Space Needle’s opening.
Sevart cautioned space travel might not be for everyone, adding that the winner must be mentally and physical prepared.
The Space Needle was built in 1961 as the nation was in the midst of the space race with the Soviet Union. The tower was the marquee attraction 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 into a new era in space travel. The last space shuttle to ever rocket to orbit landed 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 one involving the Space Needle is another step toward putting space travel within the reach of the public. He envisions that a trip to sub-orbit will soon 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.”