SEATTLE – To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Seattle's iconic Space Needle, organizers want to go beyond Earth.
Inspired by the tower's space-age hourglass shape and flying-saucer top, the team responsible for the landmark decided to create a contest to send a member of the public into orbit using a company from the burgeoning private space travel industry.
"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 went up as the United States was racing with the Soviet Union to explore outer space. The tower was the marquee showing at the 1962 World's Fair, which featured exhibits of that era's version of the future.
Five decades later, the U.S. is stepping forward into a new episode in space travel. The last space shuttle to rocket to orbit landed permanently almost two weeks ago. NASA is now looking to private contractors to send astronauts to the ISS while it focuses on deeper space travel.
"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.
Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to step on the moon, is expected at Monday's formal contest announcement. He will be 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 to space, hitching rides on Russian rockets.
The winning trip to space would be a suborbital shot, with about 6 minutes of zero gravity, Garriott said. The details will come later. Space Adventure is still developing the vessels that will be used for the excursions.
"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. First, anyone can sign up to enter at the Space Needle's website starting Monday through December. Sevart is expecting millions of entries. From there, a computer will randomly choose 1,000 people. The chosen entries will then 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.