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.
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.
After rebuilding his wealth with his gaming business and clearing his schedule, Garriott last year signed on again for another flight. Assuming all goes according to plan, he is slated to lift off from Kazakhstan aboard the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TMA-13 on Oct. 12. Garriott is scheduled to spend 10 to 14 days on the International Space Station with four other people, including second-generation Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov and NASA astronaut, Michael Fincke.
Tickets aren't cheap, now at $30 million apiece. Garriott says that he will pay some portion out of his own pocket and is seeking corporate sponsorship to cover the rest of the bill. One company that will help him out: Huntsville, Ala.-based ExtremoZyme, which develops enzymes for research and industrial application. Owen Garriott was one of ExtremoZyme's founders; Richard is an investor.
To prepare for the flight, Garriott is logging time in Russia's Star City cosmonaut training center and at NASA's Johnson Space Center, which houses a mockup of the space station. There will also be a stint in the Black Sea for survival training. He's already completed "centrifuge runs" at Brooks Air Force in San Antonio, Texas, to simulate the body's reaction to re-entering the earth's atmosphere.
Once in space, Garriott's itinerary will be busy. To show that space travel isn't just a lark, he's promoting in-flight commercial activities. For sponsor ExtremoZyme, he will take protein molecules into space and document their crystallization in zero gravity. The data, he says, could be used to develop drugs and therapies for various ailments.
Garriott also plans to devote time to photographing the earth, in a nod to the 60 days his father spent in 1973 making observations from space station Skylab 3. Snapping pictures of urban areas, glaciers, deserts, forests and volcanoes will show how earth has changed "within a lifetime," he says. He also wants to communicate with schools--possibly by streaming video--to promote awareness of space travel.
Despite a lifetime of preparation, discussing the prospect of space travel still makes him giddy. "The total time from the beginning of re-entry to being on the ground is six minutes," he marvels. "It's phenomenal."
He's equally excited about an increasingly accessible future for space travel. Space Adventures is currently negotiating with cosmonauts to take guests to the moon and back. Garriott likens it to chartering a pilot: "You'd get two seats at a time, with input into how long you stay, where you fly and where to dock." He is also keen on the plans under way at Las Vegas-based start-up, Bigelow Aerospace, to develop a commercial space operation for low-earth orbit by 2012.
"If you look at my creations, homes, collections and vacations, it's one big continuum," he notes. Case in point: His Austin, Texas, estate--named Britannia Manor in a nod to his English roots--boasts an observatory, secret passageways and dungeons. An avid amateur magician, Garriott also collects oddities including scientific instruments and favors extreme adventures such as safaris, exploring hydrothermal vents in Antarctica and salvaging deep ocean wrecks.
It all feeds his overarching goal of making space travel commercially viable. "The fundamental reason for going is just that I want to go. Participating as a follower or viewer would be enough," says Garriott. "But the great joy of going is to be productive. There's so much value all around you up there."