How do you get to space without becoming a professional astronaut? If you’re Justin Bieber or Ashton Kutcher, you shell out a hundred thousand bucks or more for a seat on a space tourism flight.
Or you can try to win a spot by harnessing the loyalty of a gamer army.
That was UVA third-year Patrick Carney’s approach. In 2015, he’ll be one of a handful of people who will ride for free to sub-orbital heights on Space Expedition Corporation’s XCOR Lynx craft. The group members were awarded the coveted spots last month in the finale of a contest sponsored by deodorant and fragrance company AXE. Carney, an Alexandria native, will be the only American on board—and will be one of the youngest people ever to go to space.
His thoroughly modern, steeped-in-geekdom victory story starts with a video game.
Carney is a celebrity in a small corner of the online gaming world, where he’s known as Chief Pat. As the self-made strategy king of a free iOS war game called Clash of Clans, he posts videos of narrated gameplay to his YouTube channel almost daily. If that sounds like it ought to be a very narrow niche interest, consider this: He has 300,000 subscribers, and together his library of videos has more than 55 million views.
When he learned of the AXE contest, which was offering two slots to Space Camp at the Kennedy Space Center and a long shot at a space trip to applicants who won the most supporters in an online vote-off, he made a series of appeals to his loyal followers. In April, they launched him to second place by voting for him daily.
“I didn’t hear anything from AXE until September,” said Carney, who was taking time off school to focus on his gaming instruction venture. Then he got the good news: He was headed to Florida in December.
It was an intense four days. He and 106 other campers from 60 countries co-piloted planes through barrel rolls in the sky above Orlando and went on a parabolic flight that let them experience weightlessness for twenty seconds at a time.
They were judged by a panel chaired by Buzz Aldrin, and the chosen few who would get the chance to go to space were named in a ceremony on the last day.
“The very last country they announced was the U.S.,” Carney said. There was only one slot for an American. Everybody was on the edge of their seats. “They finally said ‘Patrick…’ and I went crazy.”
He’s got more than a year to think about his pending voyage, which will involve a plane-like launch and a climb to 60 miles above the earth’s surface before a reentry that will subject passengers to 4.5gs of force. The whole thing will take about two hours.
The trip isn’t without risks. Suborbital flights—which go as high as orbital spacecraft, but don’t maintain sustained altitude—aren’t new, though using them to take tourists to the edge of space and back is. Only a handful of deep-pocketed people have paid their way to orbit since a Russian company started offering flights in 2001. But as private companies around the world start gearing up for their first commercial trips—Richard Branson’s star-studded inaugural Virgin Galactic flight is just “months away,” the billionaire said back in September—questions about regulation and safety continue to pop up.
One study on how to map high-altitude debris points out that the FAA calculates a rock about the size of your fist would cause the total destruction of a jumbo jet during flight, and private companies don’t have the same arsenal of tools as NASA when it comes to mapping junk in their air space.
But Carney doesn’t seem fazed. “When I tell a lot of people about it, they think I’m going to the moon or something,” he said. “But it’s only a one-day event.”
And he can’t wait.
“I’ve always been interested in space,” Carney said. He didn’t go down the astronaut’s career path—he’s aiming to return to UVA and attend the McIntire School of Commerce—but he’s long had an eye on the development of commercial spaceflight. “When I saw the price tags associated with it, I didn’t think it was a possibility for me.”
But it was, thanks to a community of people he knew only via the Web. He acknowledged them, appropriately, via Twitter.
“Today was one of the best days of my life and it was all because of you guys and the fact you voted for me,” he tweeted after Buzz Aldrin had handed him a certificate naming him a future astronaut. “Can’t wait to show you it all.”