Arizona Man Wins Free Trip to Space

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Arizona Man Wins Free Trip to Space
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An Arizona man earned a free trip to suborbital space today (May 9), claiming the prize after winning a harrowing, high-altitude race around the outside of Seattle's Space Needle.

In a ceremony held at the Space Needle today, famed moonwalker Buzz Aldrin announced that Gregory Schneider had won the suborbital spaceflight, an award valued at $110,000.

The free rocket ride is the grand prize of a months-long competition called Space Race 2012, which is sponsored by the Space Needle and space tourism company Space Adventures.  

The contest officially opened in August 2011 and attracted more than 50,000 entrants from all over the country, according to Space Needle officials. But today, it all came down to Schneider, who's from Tucson, and Sara Cook of Washington, D.C. [Photos: The First Space Tourists]

Schneider and Cook were the last two finalists remaining from a group of five that had gathered in Seattle on Monday (May 7) to compete in a series of mysterious challenges.

Wednesday's task was to race around the "halo" encircling the Space Needle hundreds of feet above the ground — while safely harnessed to the iconic structure. The challenge also involved climbing up the exterior of the Space Needle's mast, which tops out at 605 feet (184 meters) above the ground, according to Space Needle officials.

"And the winner is…Gregory!" the Space Needle announced via Twitter on Wednesday.

Other challenges earlier in the week included an indoor skydiving competition, during which finalists had to complete a series of tasks while floating in a wind tunnel, and a solar-panel-building activity.

Schneider wins a free suborbital spaceflight, up to an altitude of about 62 miles (100 kilometers), aboard a vehicle provided by Armadillo Aerospace. Space Adventures is selling seats aboard an Armadillo spacecraft for $110,000, so that's the approximate value of the prize.

Schneider will get to experience a few minutes of weightlessness during his flight, and he'll be able to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space.

Like the other companies gearing up to launch people to suborbital space — such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace — Armadillo isn't quite ready to do so yet. So the launch date for Schneider's trip has not been officially set.

Space Race 2012 is also handing out a variety of other prizes, such as a ticket aboard the microgravity-inducing aircraft G-Force One and a free two-night trip to Seattle.

Schneider said before today's finale that victory would fulfill one of his longstanding dreams, as well as inspire his children to dream big.

"I think if I get to do something this amazing, they'll think, 'Well, you know, we can do anything, too,'" he told Seattle's KING 5 News earlier in the week.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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