Billionaire Space Tourists

In the world of gamers, Richard Garriott answers to the name "Lord British." But what about in space?

Call him a "space tourist," and Garriott will grimace. Instead the lanky, 46-year-old computer gaming tycoon thinks of himself as a "private astronaut" -- and he's hoping that hundreds of other people will want to earn the same title, too.

On Oct. 12, Garriott plans to be the sixth private citizen to head into space. He will be joining an elite group of astronauts, including several billionaires and fellow millionaires such as telecom entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari and former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi.

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Space travel is getting trendier at the speed of light. Virgin Galactic, a company started by Richard Branson, plans to jet tourists into suborbital space as early as 2009. Tickets will cost $200,000 apiece. So far, 200 people have signed up for flights, including physicist Stephen Hawking and actress Sigourney Weaver. Then there's Google, which recently announced the first 10 teams of competitors in its $30-million Lunar X Prize contest to send a spacecraft back to the moon.

But Garriott's ambitions stretch beyond merely reaching space. He wants to reinvent the way Americans view and, eventually, experience space travel. "I grew up listening to criticisms of space exploration," says Garriott. "My mission is to show that this is a useful, profitable activity."

Garriott isn't exaggerating when he says he grew up hearing about space: His father, Owen Garriott, is a former NASA astronaut who completed two space missions in 1973 and 1983. Richard opted for more of a virtual profession, however, and started designing videogames including the best selling "Ultima" computer game series in the 1980s. His windfall came in 1992 when gaming giant Electronic Arts acquired Origin Systems, a videogame publisher he co-founded in 1983. He still actively designs games for developer Destination Games, which he helped launch in 2000. Last year, he released Tabula Rasa, a "near future" sci-fi game that takes players on a romp through the cosmos.

So why not go for real?

Garriott says he began funding space tourism research in the 1990s, hoping to be the first private citizen in orbit. In 2000, he teamed up with Virginia-based Space Adventures after meeting Chief Executive Eric Anderson at an Explorers Club gala. Currently a Space Adventures board member, he's also a trustee of the X Prize, a nonprofit organization that awards big prizes to inventors in hopes of spurring innovation. Other X Prize trustees include Google co-founder, Larry Page. "There's an astonishing overlap between high-tech entrepreneurs and people interested in privatization of space," Garriott says. "Branson, Bezos, Elon Musk, the Google guys--we all know each other."

The collapse of the dot-com bubble drained Garriott's fortune--enough, he says, that he didn't feel comfortable paying out $20 million, the going price in 2000 for a spaceflight. Space Adventures sold Garriott's spot on its waiting list to multimillionaire Dennis Tito, who became the first space tourist in April 2001.

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