A video-game magnate gets his journey into space
Richard Garriott, whose father was an astronaut, pays $30 million to go up Sunday to the International Space Station as a galactic tourist and working member of the space crew.
Crowding the walls at Frenchie’s Italian restaurant in Houston, a favorite hangout for National Aeronautic and Space Administration workers, are hundreds of autographed photos of astronauts past and present. Among them is a signed shot of Owen Garriott, a veteran of two NASA missions, posing proudly – exuding the Right Stuff.Skip to next paragraph
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Seated below the photograph, spearing forkfuls of pasta, is his son Richard, whose dream of following in his father’s footsteps was shattered when he was told, at age 12, that he had the wrong stuff. Poor eyesight would preclude him from ever joining the US space program, a doctor advised him during a routine checkup at NASA’s family clinic.
But this Sunday, Richard Garriott will reverse that verdict as he blasts off for a 10-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). “I’ve never been the kind of person who takes ‘No’ very well,” he smiles, pausing between mouthfuls to greet fellow diners eager to wish him well. “If they hadn’t told me ‘No’ all those years ago, I may not be going up now. It did me a favor.”
From that day more than three decades ago, he has spent his life plotting an alternative path to the stars, ultimately amassing the cash to buy his way into orbit as a paying guest of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos. The ticket price: $30 million.
His expedition to the final frontier has not been achieved by checkbook alone, however, nor did his parentage give him an automatic ticket to the heavens. Mr. Garriott, who began his working life flipping hamburgers at Burger King and went on to become a multimillionaire computer-game developer, has worked hard to become a respected figure within the commercial space travel industry. He has emerged as one of its leading champions and visionaries.
Yet he recognizes that spending a small fortune on a jaunt into space, especially at a time of economic despair, riles some people. “People will always say there are far better things to spend it on,” he said in a recent interview in Houston, where he was training for his flight. “But to go over the next horizon is the only way mankind has found the things it has. It’s about pushing our horizons a little further.”
In the past year, he has trained as intensively as any career astronaut to acquire both the physical fitness and technical knowledge the role demands. When he launches aboard a Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan on Sunday, he will rocket into history as America’s first second-generation astronaut: The mission comes 35 years after his father set a record for the longest time spent aloft when he served aboard Skylab, NASA’s first orbital laboratory, for 60 days in 1973.
As a child growing up near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Garriott thought that venturing beyond Earth’s atmosphere was an everyday pursuit. His father – whom he likens to Spock from Star Trek, “articulate, calm, rational, dispassionate” – would bring home science experiments and cool gadgets. Their house had a squawk box that would let them listen to communications between NASA and its spacecraft.
“To have a Dad as an astronaut was totally normal, totally mundane,” he says. “Everyone around us worked for NASA or a contractor. It was a shock when I left this community and moved outside and realized how special it really was.”
Growing up inside the space bubble did make for interesting talk in study hall, though. “Friends would come up and say, ‘Wow, your dad’s an astronaut? What was it like to be in space?’ And I would think, that’s a point he never told me. So I would ask him, ‘Dad, what was it like in space?’ and he would say, ‘Well, you know, it was nominal,’ and I’d tell my friends, ‘My dad said it was nominal,’ ” he laughs.