Early in August, Seattle’s Space Needle and Space Adventures launched a scheme that promised to let one lucky earthling cozy up with the stars, offering a trip to space as the prize in a contest open to the public.
Space Adventures and other private space flight companies have hooked up with household brands--Gillette, Audi, and most recently 7-Eleven--to offer joyrides in space for lucky winners in raffles and competitions. Or, really, the winners get a space experience without the astronomical price tag that would put such flights potentially out of reach.
Call it an appetite whetter for what is presently an elite, expensive market. Or just the latest tourism gimmick.
Space Race 2012 , announced as part of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Seattle's Space Needle, the futuristic Seattle tower which was built for the 1962 World Expo, promises to give contest winners a taste of space.
The folks from the Space Needle “were looking for something grand,” Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures tells Fast Company. And Space Adventures has promised to deliver. The Grand Prize for the Space Race 2012 contest is a training program and trip to suborbital space--62 miles above the earth--valued at $110,000 (though the vehicle for the trip has yet to be built). Other prize winners will get one of Space Adventures' simulated space experiences. A modified Boeing 727 follows a high-altitude flight path that lets passengers experience zero gravity without actually entering space. A ticket on that flight is valued at $4,950 (taxes excluded).
Contests like these are tidy ways to create a bit of a buzz around the consumer brand and the company behind the space tourism prize, Shelley says. "I think we’re getting onto the radar of creative agencies … a couple that have healthy marketing budgets." And he adds that he's all for other partnerships with companies who’d like to use a trip to space as a prize for raffles, contests, and sweepstakes. He’d even like to see a television reality show which will offer space flight as the grand prize.
But others see schemes like these as corrosive to the credibility of private space flight, in part because promises of anything beyong zero-g flight have yet to be backed by technologies and space crafts that will make such travel possible. For one, Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s private space company, and NASA’s first pick  for a private collaboration, wants to stay judiciously clear of such ploys. "Our main responsibility is to get people flying regularly and safely and becoming a commercial success," Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s Commercial Director tells Fast Company. "It's not about running competitions. It's about getting people out there."
With their New Mexico space base, "Spaceport America," already under construction, and a suborbital craft undergoing tests, Virgin Galactic is the front-runner in the space tourism race so far. And Attenborough believes that until companies like Virgin Galactic set up space travel as the norm, "space tourism" is not something regular people will start saving up for. Contests and sweepstakes like those launched by the Space Needle may be conversation starters, but the industry will take off only after batches of space tourists have been sent up and brought home safely. "We have 450 customers waiting to fly, and we've got maybe 18 months or so to go," Attenborough says. With lives on the line and Virgin Galactic’s going rate of $200,000 per person, per trip, the pressure's on to get every tiny detail right.
[Image: Flickr user Mike Miley ]