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Originally published May 8, 2012 at 9:44 PM | Page modified May 9, 2012 at 10:38 AM

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Finalists for trip to space try to prove they have the right stuff

Out of 50,000 entries for a 20-minute, $110,000 suborbital space trip sponsored by the Space Needle for the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair, it's down to two finalists. In these often-grim times, they exude optimism.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Space Adventures simulation and promotional video

YouTube video by spacemooseireland

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The daily news might be incessantly grim as economies melt, but there are still plenty of dreamers, and plenty of people who literally want to reach for the stars.

Three of them showed up Tuesday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle — two young women, ages 24 and 26, and one young man, 27.

They were the finalists from some 50,000 people who had entered the 50th Seattle World's Fair contest sponsored by the Space Needle to take a 20-minute flight into space.

Oh, were these finalists full of that optimism that recalled a different era, the one in which President Kennedy said in 1962, "This country was conquered by those who moved forward, and so will space."

One of the finalists, Sara Cook, who works as a diplomatic assistant at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. (she is fluent in Japanese and French, so, yes, she is plenty smart), wrote her senior thesis at George Washington University on private space exploration.

She said her hope was that a trip to space might be an affordable family vacation one day.

Right now, reservations for such a 20-minute suborbital trip, which means it only includes a few minutes of weightlessness, are being booked for $110,000 each for a spacecraft that holds two people.

Space Adventures, the Vienna, Va., company putting together the flights, has a number of astronauts on its advisory board, including Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. So far, the company says, it has 200 reservations for the suborbital flights that will send customers 62 miles above Earth.

That's a lot of interest for a spacecraft that still is being developed.

So far, what the company has done is send seven rich individuals willing to pay some $25 million a trip up on Russian rockets to the international space station, including Medina resident and former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi.

On the YouTube video that finalists made for online voting, Cook said, "Ever since I was a little girl, I was always fascinated by space, wanting to go and float weightless in its depths. But since I couldn't become an astronaut, I found another way to attain that feeling — by joining a synchronized swimming team."

The video shows her gliding through the water as if she truly were weightless.

Mary Bacarella, spokeswoman for the Space Needle, said about the 50,000 responses, "We were pleasantly surprised that so many people wanted to go into space."

Through a lottery, that number was winnowed to 1,000 people who were asked to send in a video, then to 20, then to five finalists who were flown to Seattle and had to go through various gimmicky "challenges," such as maneuvering a robotic rover with a remote control, or putting together some Legos while their arms were inside rubber safety gloves extending into a plastic dome.

The challenges were designed to be visuals for TV crews, and the three finalists were good sports.

One of the contestants, Lauren Furgason, turned out to be a Seattleite who works as a strategist for a branding agency.

Her parents were at the event, and said they were more nervous than their daughter.

There was a certain look to both Furgason and Sara Cook — that hair-drawn-back-in-a-ponytail, rather-intense look that young women soccer or basketball players have. Both women, in fact, had played sports in high school.

"She's in the zone," Sam Furgason said of his daughter.

His daughter did quite well in the first three challenges, and was ahead, but the last challenge — using the remote controls to maneuver a small robotic rover — did in Furgason.

More successful was Gregory Schneider, of Tucson, Ariz., a recent law-school graduate now doing a clerkship with an appeals-court judge. His wife, Lindsay, pregnant with their third child, was there to root for him, the Space Needle having paid her way. In his video, Schneider featured his children and said, "I want to go to space to inspire my children to turn their dreams into reality."

Schneider said that last year he had spent $300 on a telescope and that if he pointed out interesting celestial stuff, his wife was interested, too. He said he became fascinated with the stars when he was 7 or 8 and his dad took him to a planetarium.

"It's just basic instinct to look up at the sky and wonder what's out there," Schneider said.

It also turned out that all those years playing video games when he was younger helped Tuesday.

Schneider could maneuver the remote controls considerably easier than Furgason, who didn't bring her rover across the finish line in time and was eliminated from the contest.

On Wednesday morning, Cook and Schneider will face off at the Space Needle in some more gimmicky challenges, and then Aldrin himself will announce the winner.

Then it'll be waiting time. Space Adventures promises to have a suborbital spacecraft ready "in the next few years."

Cheryl Cook, mother of Sara, had flown in from Austin, Texas, with her husband, Robert, to watch her daughter.

She said she didn't mind at all that Space Adventures was still developing with its contractor the suborbital spacecraft.

"They can take as much time as they need to test it," the mom said. "I want it to be safe."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237

or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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