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Minnesota man competes for a trip to space

ARDEN MILLS, Minn. (AP) — Mark Johnson's Christmas present could be literally out of this world.

If things go his way this holiday season, the principal software developer for Medtronic will win a trip into space.

The Arden Hills father of three is one of 15 across the world in the running for the out-of-this-world prize. He started as one of nearly 6,000.

"Initially, I thought it was a gimmick, that it would turn out to be a space camp or something," Johnson said. "But they're serious....I could really be going into space."

His chance at the prize began at an annual summit for database administrators this fall in Seattle. There, Red Gate Software — a British company that makes tools for database administrators - announced a competition that left everyone buzzing.

Anyone who could make it through a series of tough sci-fi questions online and then come up with a tweet about space clever enough to impress a panel of judges would earn the chance to actually go where few have gone before, said Gareth Marlow, head of Red Gate's DBA tools division.

"As a company, we try to be innovative and stand out from the crowd," Marlow said.

During a recruiting campaign last year, for example, job candidates at Red Gate each got an iPad, a product that had not yet hit the consumer market in Britain.

The space competition takes that kind of novelty to the next level, Marlow said, and is a way to honor database administrators, the anonymous folks who run the systems that run the world - from Facebook to online bank accounts.

"A lot of us in the technology industry grew up following the space program, always with a little bit of dreaming as we looked at the stars and wished we could be there," Marlow said. "Now one of us will be...this is completely new territory."

Red Gate is teaming up with Space Adventures, a Virginia-based space tourism company, to make the excursion happen. The company is one of a handful working to make space tourism more accessible, Marlow said.

Up until now, the only way to get there if you weren't an astronaut was to pay about $10 million to visit the international space station, he said.

A seat on a Space Adventures rocket - still in development - would cost more like $102,000, said Stacey Tearne, a spokesperson for Space Adventures. Red Gate already has bought a ticket for the first flight, Marlow said, though the departure date could be years out.

The winner won't be walking on the moon or anything, but the trip does include a launch and landing, Tearne said.

If Johnson gets the spot, he would travel about 62 miles into the air - about 10 times higher than an average airplane - far enough to experience weightlessness for about three minutes while on the border of the outer edge of space, Johnson said.

He also would get quite a view of Earth.

"To think of the possibility of doing that, it's just overwhelming," Johnson said. "Not many people ever get the chance to say they've been to space."

The self-proclaimed "moderate sci-fi geek" joined the competition without thinking he had a chance of winning. He answered one question, then another - 14 were released every three days or so.

On Dec. 1, he got a phone call.

"They told me I was a finalist....I was shaking, I was so nervous," he said.

Six thousand people entered, Marlow said. Johnson's correct answers - he was among a small proportion to get all the questions right - along with his tweet earned him spot. He is the only finalist from Minnesota.

His space-worthy tweet?

"Anybody can put data in the cloud, but only Red Gate could send a (database administrator) into space," Johnson said. "The tweet doesn't mean much to the average person, but if you're in the field, you get it."

The winner will be decided by popular vote. The voting window opened a couple of weeks ago and closed this morning at 6 a.m. The lucky database administrator will be announced Dec. 20, Gareth said.

Johnson's family has been running around-the-clock Facebook and Twitter campaigns, trying to get family and friends to vote.

"I hope he gets it....He deserves it," said his 21-year-old daughter, Rachel Johnson.

Johnson and his wife, Penny, founded Northern Voices, a school for the deaf, in 1999 for their deaf daughter Bekah, who is now 15.

"He is always doing something for someone else....His to-do list is insane," Rachel Johnson said.


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press,

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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