Beam me up, Bill: Network technician wins Vista 'rocketplane' ride

29-year-old chosen for space flight in 2009 -- if taxes aren't a problem

Space could indeed become the final frontier for a 29-year-old network technician who was chosen as the winner of a Windows Vista promotional contest -- as long as the taxman doesn't put a crimp in his flight plans.

William Temple, who works at medical insurer HealthNet Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., was announced today as the winner of the $250,000 grand prize from Microsoft Corp.'s "Vanishing Point" promotion, qualifying him for a 2009 flight that would blast him 62 miles into the air -- to the edge of outer space. In a random drawing, Temple's name was selected from among those of the 87,000 registered players of Vanishing Point, an interactive puzzle game sponsored by Microsoft and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

The monthlong game involved arcane puzzles and cryptic clues that were handed out to would-be puzzle solvers via Las Vegas light shows during the Consumer Electronics Show, skywriting above four cities, coded images projected onto monuments and a fireworks finale above Seattle.

Temple was chosen as the winner last Tuesday despite freely admitting that he had accumulated only 370 points out of the 1,500 maximum and that after solving the first puzzle on his own, he benefited from solutions posted on the Internet by other game players. According to Microsoft, any player could win, but a higher number of points increased someone's chance of winning.

"We had some people who solved every single puzzle," said Aaron Coldiron, a Vista manager at Microsoft. "But we feel good about Will winning. He's right in the target demographic."

That demographic, according to Microsoft, was men who are between the ages of 18 and 35 and are interested in technology. Reaching that group via conventional advertising is increasingly difficult and expensive. Coldiron said the total cost of staging the Vanishing Point game was "less than a single Super Bowl commercial." The going rate to air a 30-second spot during this year's game was as much as $2.6 million, which doesn't include the costs of producing the commercial.

Not that Microsoft isn't investing elsewhere: it's expected to spend $500 million to market Vista this year, according to published reports. 

Some $50,000 of that money will go to help Temple pay taxes on his flight, which is valued at $196,500. The tax payment could be crucial: In 2005, the winner of an Oracle Corp. contest that would have given him a free space flight ultimately declined the trip because he would have had to report the ride, valued at $138,000, as income and pay $25,000 in taxes as a result.

Coldiron said Microsoft is working with Temple to "understand his tax situation" and will offer additional money if his tax bill from the trip turns out to be even higher than the budgeted $50,000.

If the tax situation works out, Temple would get to experience what Microsoft's marketing mavens are calling "the ultimate vista" -- a flight on the Rocketplane XP, which is built around a heavily modified Learjet body. The 62-mile altitude that the flight would reach compares with the 220 miles above Earth that NASA's space shuttles fly to reach the International Space Station, said John Herrington, a retired astronaut who will serve as the pilot of the Rocketplane.

Because the Rocketplane won't go as high as the shuttle, it will experience temperatures of only 700 degrees Fahrenheit as it descends back to Earth, Herrington said. That compares with 3,000 degrees for the space shuttle, he added.

Plans call for the hour-long ride to start in Burns Flat, Okla., a town of 1,782 people located 100 miles west of Oklahoma City that houses the Oklahoma Spaceport, a former Air Force base that is expected to start launching test space flights next year.

The operator of the flight, Rocketplane Ltd.'s Rocketplane Kistler unit, plans to run 25 to 50 test flights during 2008, according to Herrington, who is the Oklahoma City-based company's director of flight operations. Rocketplane Kistler is one of two companies that was chosen by NASA last year to provide outsourced flights to the International Space Station for bringing up crew members and replenishing supplies.

The other company, El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. -- or SpaceX, for short -- has received more publicity than Rocketplane Kistler has thus far. SpaceX, which was founded by PayPal Inc. co-founder Elon Musk, is using a more traditional rocket design. It had a failed launch last March but is planning a second one next month, when it will attempt to transport the cremated remains of more than 100 people, including astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek actor James "Scotty" Doohan.

A third company, Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures Ltd., has already sent four private citizens, including Ubuntu Linux developer Mark Shuttleworth, into space using Soyuz spacecraft from the former Soviet Union. Charles Simonyi, a former chief software architect at Microsoft, is training for a flight with Space Adventures this March.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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