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 of those nineteenth-century English nobles who went off to find the headwaters of the Nile. Spending part of the fortune he made from Ultima—a video game series set in a medieval fantasy universe in which Garriott’s nom de plume is Lord British—Garriott has trekked in search of meteorite fragments at the South Pole, dived in a minisub to the Titanic, and participated in the discovery of one of the world’s deepest shipwrecks. Yet he has long felt that something essential was missing in his life: space.
Unlike the rest of the world’s would-be astronauts, Garriott has an honest claim to that heroic lineage. His father, Owen Garriott, was one of NASA’s elite, a scientist who walked away from a topflight academic career at Stanford University because becoming an astronaut was the most compelling human adventure since European explorers took to unknown seas three hundred years ago. In his youth, Richard watched his father blast off to orbit twice. The first time, in 1973, Owen and two fellow astronauts more than doubled the previous record for the longest time in space. Richard was twelve, and he tracked his father’s mission from his family’s home in Nassau Bay, the quiet suburb south of Houston built around NASA’s headquarters. It was middle-class-American anywhere, except, as Richard points out, “every father who lived around us was an astronaut or engineer at NASA.”
Today, Garriott is consumed by his own mission: becoming the world’s first second-generation astronaut. His only shot is to buy his way up, but while he has proven that he can make scads of money, he doesn’t have a spare $20 million lying around. Instead, he’s invested close to $1 million in Space Adventures, a company based in Arlington, Virginia, that is already booking passengers for the first commercial space flights. Space Adventures advertises its ticket price for suborbital flights at $102,000, and as a board member and the company’s biggest investor, Garriott has his seat reserved. While he waits for his first voyage, which he insists will take place in the next three to five years, he makes frequent visits to Space Adventures’ Moscow office for business consultations with the company’s Russian partners. Among its many options, Space Adventures offers customers $20,000 supersonic flights to the rim of space aboard MiG jets flown by test pilots in the Russian air force.
One afternoon last winter, Garriott showed me around his home in West Austin, a hillside mansion that was laid out like a castle in his Ultima fantasyland Britannia. The walls of the entry were decorated with a collection of crossbows, and down a circular iron staircase was “the dungeon”—a dustless array of shrunken heads, his mother’s taxidermy sculptures, a ferocious mask that African tribal folk hoped would scare off gorillas, proto-calculators predating slide rules, and a photo taken with Bill Clinton when Garriott gave the president a hefty campaign contribution. Another cabinet showcased mementos of his dad’s achievements in space, and in the corner stood a tiny Soyuz space suit that had been tailored for a Japanese woman who flew on a Russian mission.
Garriott began describing his own adventures with the Russians—aboard a MiG-25. For part of the flights, they let him pilot “the beast,” though back home he’s not even licensed to fly a Piper Cub. “It’s basically a rocket ship, with a tiny passenger cabin in the nose and two very large engines in the back. You get off the ground and up to a predefined pitch and let ’er rip. In about thirty minutes you burn six thousand dollars’ worth of fuel.” By this time the MiG has reached an altitude of fifteen miles and a velocity two and a half times the speed of sound. “You get so high so fast,” he continued, “that you’re right at the threshold of engine failure. A little bit higher, when you’re truly in space, the sky will be black, but you’re high enough that the sky is no longer bright blue.” Garriott finished the story with a tinge of sadness in his voice.