Space has always been a passion for University of Virginia third-year student Patrick Carney.
“I think it’s human nature to push boundaries, be curious, and to want to explore the unexplored,” the Alexandria native said.
In 2015, he will get a unique opportunity to explore the edge of space when he takes a trip aboard a small re-usable shuttle-type spacecraft, a two-seat XCOR Lynx, which currently is being planned for commercial passenger use by Space Expedition Corporation. Tickets cost about $95,000 for the experience of suborbital flight.
But Carney won’t be paying anything. He overcame long odds and won a free trip.
Earlier this year he entered a contest sponsored by AXE, a men’s personal care company, and learned in September that he had won an opportunity to compete for a coveted free seat in space.
The initial competition, which was open to participants from around the world, involved a campaign for online votes. More than 1 million Americans competed. Carney already had a popular YouTube channel focused on an iOS game, “Clash of Clans.” With about 325,000 subscribers, Carney went looking for votes.
“Votes came from different sources, but I definitely can attribute most of them to my YouTube channel,” he said. “When I made a few videos asking for votes, I got a great response.”
So great that he earned a December trip to “Space Camp” at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he competed against eight other Americans for a single ticket to space. In total, more than 100 Space Camp participants from more than 60 countries competed for a shot at 23 trips to space – only one reserved for an American.
While at Space Camp, Carney and his rivals were faced with three main challenges.
One was a g-force simulator, a machine that subjects participants to the extreme gravitational forces of high-speed flight. The second was air combat training, where participants learned to perform a variety of maneuvers in a high-performance prop plane. And the last was a zero-gravity experience aboard a modified 727 that flew to 24,000 feet and then began a rapid descent to create a weightless environment. NASA astronauts also experience these challenges during training.
After the challenges and other training, the competition among the Americans came down to a lottery. In the end, Carney was the winner of the one U.S. ticket to space.
“Disbelief. I can’t think of a cooler moment in my life than walking on stage and having Buzz Aldrin congratulate me on a trip to space,” Carney said.
Yes, that Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon. He chaired the competition’s judging committee.
Carney is still absorbing the wonder of it all, that somehow he won a one-in-a-million ticket to space. In the meantime, between his 2015 flight and now, he plans to apply for entrance to U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce.
And to think about his opportunity to explore the unexplored.
“To have the rare opportunity to experience space and look down on Earth is something I’ve always dreamed about,” he said. “And I’m really proud to be representing U.Va. in space.”