AMONG THE CROWD OF LEGITIMATE PLAYERS in the race to experience private space travel, a few like to think of themselves as the dashing descendants of Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, and Orville and Wilbur Wright. The press, meanwhile, tends to portray them all as dweebs, geeks, and dorks, a bunch of overachievers who have conquered their respective realms of business and now have too much money and not enough time in the world to spend it. When California billionaire Dennis Tito shelled out $20 million for a trip to the International Space Station with the Russians in 2001, few news accounts failed to mention that, once up there, his responsibilities included little more than pantry duty and snapping pictures (scoffed at by NASA, he wasn’t even allowed on the U.S. side of the station without an escort). Then there was Lance Bass, the bleach-blond, baby-faced singer in the pop group ’ NSync. When he announced his own plans to go into orbit with the Russians in 2002, the only ones who took him seriously were a few Hollywood producers who envisioned their next great reality-television show. Later, when Bass was kicked out of the Russians’ preflight training program for failing to come up with the $20 million ticket price, you couldn’t help but sense the collective sigh of relief: Nobody wanted a boy-band celeb to be our next Lindbergh.
Given the competition, it’s easy to understand why video game inventor Richard Garriott, of Austin, stands out from the pack. A self-described “extreme sports nut,” Garriott is six feet two, weighs about two hundred pounds, and has the barrel chest and bounding stride to back up the claim. At 44, he stays in shape through grueling workouts in a boxing gym, coaxed and pushed along by his friend and personal trainer Jesus Chavez, a world lightweight champion. In the past few years, Garriott has roamed the world in a restless quest for adventure, like one