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SEATTLE -- Five finalists from across the country will begin competing Monday for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to fly to space with a private company.

The competition, sponsored by the Space Needle during its 50th anniversary celebration, will conclude Wednesday, when the winner is announced by renowned astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

About 55,000 people initially signed up for the contest. Through a random drawing, a video contest and an online vote, it was whittled down to five people: Lauren Furgason, 21, of Seattle; Savan Becker, a space operations officer from Maryland; Sara Cook, 24, of Washington, DC; Gregory Schneider, 27, of Arizona; and John Herman, 34, of New Hampshire.

The five finalists met for the first time Sunday at a dinner inside the Space Needle restaurant.

Furgason, the youngest finalist, has dreamed of going to space since she was young.

My dad actually had to chase me up the street one night because I ran away to try to go to the moon, she said.

Cook took up synchronized swimming so she could get a taste of space travel.

When I did synchronized swimming. I used to imagine that I was in space sometimes, she said.

Becker actually came to the Space Needle about six years to overcome his fear of heights. It worked, and now he wants to travel even farther.

Exciting doesn't even describe it, he said. It's just surreal.

Schneider hopes to inspire his young children.

I really want them to reach for the highest goals they can dream up, he said. If I get to do something that's amazing, they'll think we can do anything.

Becker, who studied space and has dreamed of becoming an astronaut since age 6, also wants to motivate kids.

There are still kids out there that want to be astronauts, he said. When I tell them, 'Hey, I might have a chance to go into space, and when I come back I'm going to tell you about it,' their eyes light up.'

The contestants do not know what challenges lie ahead this week, but all have been getting into shape during the past few months.

Two finalists will be eliminated after Monday's challenge. One more will be eliminated on Tuesday. The winner will be announced Wednesday.

Space Adventures, a private space travel company, is building vessels that will be used for the excursions. The cost for the grand prize is about $110,000, organizers said.

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