Space tourist braves dangerous Soyuz ship

For $30 million, Richard Garriott gets two weeks in space and a risky ride home.

— -- The last two trips back to Earth by Russian spacecraft were not for the timid. Plunging to the ground on an alarmingly steep path, the ships landed hundreds of miles off course after subjecting crews to a ride so rough they found it hard to breathe.

Richard Garriott will come home on one of those Russian ships — and he's paying for the privilege.

Garriott is the sixth person to buy a ticket to space himself. Like his predecessors, he'll spend two weeks living on the International Space Station after forking over $30 million of a fortune he made designing computer games.

Unlike other space tourists, he'll come home on a vehicle with a newly troubled history. Even so, Garriott professes not to be worried.

"The Soyuz is truly a wonderfully built craft (with) a long series of backups," says Garriott, 47, who blasts off Sunday. "I'm extremely confident in trusting this vehicle with my life."

Coolness in the face of risk runs in the family. Richard's father Owen Garriott, 77, was an astronaut who lived on NASA's Skylab space station, flew on the space shuttle and was an "absolute rational thinker," says his son. That trait rubbed off.

"I'm a devout believer in scientific, statistical study," Garriott says. He cites the Soyuz's 35-year history without a fatality as reason for his nonchalance. "There's no question that I learned what I'll call that scientific approach from my father."

He recounts listening to Mission Control in 1973 as a child when one his father's spacecraft ran into trouble with its thruster jets. The older Garriott didn't get alarmed, so his son didn't either. The father made a safe landing.

The last two Soyuzes — one in October of 2007 and one in April, — touched down safely but not before subjecting their passengers to a harrowing ride. Both crews suffered eight times the force of gravity, twice as much pressure as during a normal landing.

A Russian investigation found that the three segments of the spacecraft did not separate properly. Normally the pieces separate early in the descent, and the crew cabin falls to Earth by itself.

Instead, during the Soyuz's last two journeys to Earth, the segments held together longer than they should have. If they'd held together much longer, the ship's heat shield might have burned through, with fatal results.

In July, Russian cosmonauts made a spacewalk to remove a suspect bolt on the Soyuz that will carry Garriott home. That probably solved any problem, Garriott says. And if not?

"So be it," he says.

Richard Garriott inherited not only his father's stoicism about risk but also his love of space. Growing up at the edge of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, living amidst the families of other astronauts, Richard took it for granted that he'd go to space.

An eye exam when he was young showed his vision was too poor for him to become an astronaut, but he would find another route to orbit. Rather than graduating college, he became wealthy as a pioneer of online games and invested in a space tourism company called Space Adventures. Years later, he paid the company to arrange his ride on the Soyuz and his stay on the station.

Once in space, Richard will pay tribute to his father's career. He'll try to photograph the same features on Earth that his father did, to allow comparisons of sites 30 years later. He'll do experiments on the growth of protein crystals in zero gravity, as his father did.

At Richard's request, Owen Garriott, retired from NASA, will act as the chief scientist for his son's flight. Not since Richard was a child have they spent so much time together.

Working with his father has been "a great joy for both me and my dad," Richard says. "It's also cool … that I've got one of the leading experts close at hand."

Owen Garriott plans to be at the launch pad in Kazakhstan to watch his son blast off. He hopes to be on one of the helicopters that flies to the Soyuz after it lands on the Kazakh plains. Unlike the parents of most space travelers, he isn't fearful of the risks his child has decided to run. He has run those risks himself.

"We understand the risks, and we believe they are tolerable," even with the Soyuz problem, he says. "And we're therefore still very enthused about proceeding."