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.
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.
Exploration and adventure travel have long been favorite pursuits of Garriott’s. But he hasn’t done them as a tourist: It’s been more as a hobby scientist and modern-day Jules Verne. He has trekked Antarctica collecting meteorites, explored the Titanic in a submarine, and gathered microorganisms from hydrothermal vents deep under the sea. He has studied ancient Chinese calligraphy, paddled down the Amazon, and hiked African bushlands.
At other times, he has screamed through the upper atmosphere at twice the speed of sound in a fighter jet, scaled mountains, parachuted from planes, and ridden in a hot air balloon at altitudes requiring an oxygen mask.
“It seems not so much fun to go unless for serious exploration – and also like a waste not to be as productive as possible,” he says.
Garriott’s mission aboard the ISS will be no different in that respect. Every day will be packed with scientific studies, commercial research, and educational outreach projects. When there is time to peer out at the blue planet below, he will snap pictures of spots his father photographed from orbit in the 1970s to compare the environmental changes – deforestation, desertification, expanding urbanization.
Though the only one of his three siblings not to earn a degree – he dropped out of the University of Texas when the fledgling computer-game enterprise he had started struck it rich in the early 1980s – Garriott rapidly became a millionaire. He is considered one of the computer world’s all-time “game gods” as the creator of Ultima, a bestselling video-game series in which he is depicted as Lord British, ruler of a medieval kingdom called Britannia.
His fantasy world does not end there. His home, Britannia Manor, in Austin, Texas, is built to resemble a haunted house, with dungeons, secret passageways, hidden doorways, revolving walls, and rotating ceilings.
The manor is home to a collection of exotic artifacts: suits of armor, dinosaur fossils, a 17th-century vampire-slaying kit, and magical props. There’s a 5,000-year-old mummified Egyptian falcon and a dome-shaped Soviet Sputnik satellite that he brought into the country labeled as a salad bowl to bypass Customs. He also has a rooftop observatory.
Yet he still considers his home “all quite conservative, by my standards.”
Garriott is passionate enough about space that he drops physics calculations into regular conversation, relishes scientific banter, and holds his own in arcane discussions with cosmonauts and astronauts. It reflects his preparation for the trip, but also a lifetime of tinkering.
“He was always sort of building things,” says his brother, Robert. “He picked up a mix between our dad, who was very scientific, and our mom, who was very artistic and creative.”
Today Garriott is always evangelizing about the commercial space industry. He sees it as invaluable in undertaking initiatives that NASA – as a taxpayer-funded agency – cannot. “We should be constantly encouraging private enterprise to be right there,” he says.
Others agree. “It’s not as if he’s going out and buying a Lamborghini and tooling around town,” says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “What he’s doing is extremely positive, showing that space can become a more normal part of everyday life and not limited to groups of government employees.”
In 1998, Garriott was one of the founders of Space Adventures, the company that pioneered private-citizen trips to the ISS through the Russians. He had signed up to be the first “space tourist” in 2001, until he lost a chunk of his fortune in the dotcom stock crash. He also helped bankroll the $10 million X-Prize that in 2004 began a revolution in private spaceflight.
When he lifts off on Sunday, Garriott will gaze upon the disappearing planet below as his father, Owen, watches on the ground, along with his mother, Helen, and girlfriend, Kelly. To fund the trip, he has waved goodbye to a large part of his fortune.
“It’s wiped out the bulk of my wealth, but this is a goal I’ve been working towards all my adult life,” he says.
“When I was at high school, computer nerds were social outcasts, substandard individuals. Now every kid on the planet wants to be a computer-game geek. Now nerds are cool. And this one’s going into space.”