Rocket Man

You won’t believe how many rich mavericks with roots in Texas are trying to make private space travel a reality. But only one of them, Austin video game visionary Richard Garriott, has a shot at being the first second-generation astronaut. And he seems willing to risk his fortune to make it happen.

January 2006By Comments

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. His dad experienced 1,675 hours of space flight; his own glimpses with the Russians have lasted just seconds, and even a suborbital flight will be over in a matter of minutes. What Garriott longs for is a breakthrough in rocketry that will allow him to see and feel it all, to orbit the earth. At the heart of this quest is a large ego (he has done his research and concluded that no other children of astronauts have the wealth and ambition to beat him to outer space). But there’s more at stake than bragging rights. For all his success in the business and creative worlds, deep down Garriott is still the boy who dreams of growing up to be just like his father.

RICHARD WAS FIVE WHEN HIS FAMILY MOVED TO TEXAS, IN 1966. “Dad and I had this thing that went on for months,” he told me. “He’d come home from work, and I’d say, ‘Hi, Dad. Go to the moon today?’ He’d say, ‘No, son, not today.’”

In fact, Owen Garriott would never get to the moon; as one of NASA’s first scientist-astronauts, he was training for missions that would follow the Apollo lunar program. But when the moon race with the Soviets was finally won, the U.S. agency was rewarded with slashed budgets. NASA improvised its next project, Skylab, a predecessor of today’s International Space Station, from a salvaged cylinder that had been a fuel storage compartment of a 363-foot Saturn V rocket. Almost as soon as it reached orbit, in May 1973, Skylab sent back signals that it was in trouble. One micrometeoroid shield had blown off into the Atlantic. Another wasn’t working. Temperatures inside had soared to 130 degrees.

That July, along with Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Jack Lousma and pilot Alan Bean, Owen launched from Cape Canaveral with complex orders that would ultimately help save Skylab. Their mission now stands as an eerie reminder that the safety issues that have dogged NASA for the past two decades existed long before the Challenger explosion, in 1986. Shortly into their flight, Owen and his partners discovered that two of their command module’s four sets of maneuvering thrusters had failed and a third was leaking fuel. If that one failed, the craft would be uncontrollable. While Mission Control weighed the option of sending another craft and team to bring the three men down, the Skylab astronauts went on with their work. Owen went outside on rigorously scripted space walks. While hanging from an umbilical cord, moving 15,000 miles an hour, he saw the breadth of South America stretched out beautifully below him. He and his fellow astronauts conducted experiments, made repairs, and devised games of weightlessness, running the circle of Skylab’s cylinder like a hamster wheel.

Down on Back Bay Court, Richard, his older brothers, Randy and Robert, and his younger sister, Linda, kept up everyday routines under the care of their mother, Helen. (Richard attributes his creativity and exotic view of the world to his mother. Other people looked past a dead animal, he told me, but she saw a sculpture, and so taught herself taxidermy. “We’d come home from school and open the freezer to get an ice cream bar. Wow! A raccoon!”) But a special phone in Helen’s bedroom was connected to Mission Control. If the astronauts weren’t busy, their family members in Texas were patched right through. Richard laughed and shook his head, remembering: “I’d call Dad and ask for help with a math problem. He’s up in space, and he’s helping me do my homework.”

NASA had also installed a squawk box that conveyed every radio transmission voiced and heard at Mission Control. The family listened raptly as NASA revealed to its crew that the option of a rescue mission had been analyzed and scrapped; instead, they would gamble that Bean could control the craft and it would survive the flight down. The risk paid off, and the astronauts returned unharmed after fifty-nine and a half days. Owen arrived home a hero to his family, entertaining them with stories about eating ice cream and strawberries while watching the cradle of our civilization, from Spain to Greece, framed in Skylab’s one big window.

A few years later, Richard was in college at the University of Texas at Austin. Owen, whose favorite perk as an astronaut was the use of a sleek jet called a T-38, would sometimes stop in Austin to refuel and have lunch with his son. On one occasion, Richard remembers watching as his dad, the sober scientist, took off from the runway, then shot the white T-38 almost straight up and performed some loops and rolls of farewell. How could Richard not have space travel in his veins?

The pursuit of commercial space travel has existed for decades, but only in the last decade has the talk turned serious. The fall of communism helped. By the late nineties, the cash-strapped Russian space program realized that taking along a paid passenger for $20 million could help finance a mission. But so far, only three tycoon space voyagers have ponied up and made the weeklong flight. Of more significance, Space Adventures was launched in Arlington, Virginia, in 1998 by a trio of brainy dreamers—Eric Anderson, Michael McDowell, and Peter Diamandis. Anderson, an aerospace engineer, had just finished a coveted internship at NASA. McDowell ran an Arctic cruise company. Diamandis was a Harvard Medical School graduate with two degrees in aerospace engineering from MIT. The primary objective of their company was to make money selling tickets to space tourists, not to design and build the rockets. (Anderson arranged the orbital vacations of Dennis Tito and the Russians’ second client, Mark Shuttleworth.) But the St. Louis–based Diamandis had his eyes on the means of getting to space as well. Two years before he helped start Space Adventures, he had founded a nonprofit called the X Prize Foundation. It proposed a $10 million cash award to the first private group that could send a reusable craft capable of carrying three passengers into space twice within two weeks. His model for spurring research and development was the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which had motivated the 1927 transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh. To raise money, Diamandis and his associates started guaranteeing reservations on a future flight for $10,000. It would hold a seat—if there ever was a seat.

The opportunity seemed tailor-made for Richard Garriott, who was enjoying a remarkable run in the video game industry. By 1979 he had already discovered how to make money with a computer. The recent high school graduate worked that summer at a computer store and spent spare hours designing a rudimentary obstacles game called Akalabeth that could be played only on an Apple II. He self-published and distributed 200 copies in ziplock bags. A California publisher picked it up and sold 30,000 copies, which earned the astonished teenager $150,000. A couple years later, his defining moment came when he flunked a university class in computer programming; during a test, he couldn’t remember the difference between what he’d taught himself and the professor’s terms and methodology. “Dad and Mom were great,” he said in one of our interviews. “They told me, ‘If creating computer video games is what you really want to do, then of course quit college. Go for it.’”

He did, and soon became one of the pioneers of a brand-new art form and entertainment phenomenon: the video game, an industry that now generates $11 billion a year, more than the movies. Richard and his business-wise brother Robert founded Origin Systems in 1983; Richard and his Ultima dreamworld were soon written about in Time, Newsweek, and People. In 1992 the brothers sold the company to Electronic Arts for $30 million, though they both continued working on Ultima. They soon took the game online—the first ones to try that—where their charmed business empire thrived on virtual anarchy. Inside Origin’s Austin headquarters, more than thirty “game masters” puffed cigarettes, gulped sodas, and matched wits around the clock with Ultima players all over the world. The game allowed competitors to slay dragons, collect treasure, build homes, and even go fishing. Eventually that freedom became a nightmare. Ruthless experienced players started luring newbies out into the virtual woods of Britannia and killing them for kicks. “The result,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker, in 2001, “was a lot of players whose experience of the game consisted mostly of being dead, a condition that discouraged them from continuing to pay their monthly fees.”

In 2000 Garriott finally quit working on Ultima, yanking the plug on his creativity in the process. Then his wealth started pouring from the stock market like salt from a hole. The next year, he and Robert started a new company, Destination Games, then in a blur sold it to NCsoft, a Korean online gaming company that was looking for a toehold in the U.S. market. Destination Games became NCsoft North America, the company’s new U.S. division. Robert is CEO and manages a large product line built through acquisitions and partnerships. Richard and fellow designers and illustrators are at work on a not-yet-released game, Tabula Rasa, on which the success of their new business venture is riding. But in the frantic course of the past few years, Richard’s yearning for space has become his real passion. Along with Robert and his retired astronaut father, he’s been investing in private space ventures. Through those endeavors, he became a friend of Diamandis’s, who encouraged him to reserve a seat with Space Adventures. “At the time, I didn’t have ten grand that I was eager to part with,” Garriott told me. “But I wound up paying it. Then I met Eric Anderson at an Explorers Club meeting in New York. He really explained it all to me, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’ I invested three hundred thousand in Space Adventures. And every year since then I’ve given the [X Prize] foundation at least twenty-five to thirty thousand.”

In 2004 Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian American telecom industry veteran whose venture capital firm, Prodea, is based in Richardson, pledged along with her husband, Amir, to pay the insurance premium on the $10 million, newly named Ansari X Prize. Garriott was raring to go.

BUT ON WHAT ROCKET? And where would it take off and land? Even before the $10 million was assured, about a dozen start-up companies had been racing to build a craft, and their Texas connections started popping up like alien gunships in a computer game.

The prize for impudence could only go to a 34-year-old Californian named Elon Musk. An immigrant from South Africa, Musk’s “particularly Darwinian experience in the business world,” as he put it, was building two Internet companies in Silicon Valley and selling one to Compaq for $307 million, the other to eBay for $1.5 billion. In 2002 Musk then became the CEO of a start-up called SpaceX that proposed to blast a 68-foot rocket into low orbit. A year later, the company started testing its two-stage rocket on a three-hundred-acre site near McGregor, a small town west of Waco. Musk traveled to Washington in 2004 and lectured U.S. senators and House members on what he termed the obstructionism and failed imagination of NASA. He demanded that the government stop shackling this vibrant new industry. Also, he said, the feds should protect entrepreneurs such as him from juries and plaintiff’s lawyers who might take advantage of, say, an explosion. “We believe it is appropriate,” he told the politicians, “that a limit be placed on liability such that, notwithstanding clearly egregious conduct, [compensation for] a mistake or force majeure event resulting in third-party injury, loss of life, or damage to property be limited to a reasonable dollar figure.” Musk did not say what the value of human life might be.

In Mesquite, meanwhile, was the co-founder of id Software, a tall, thin man named John Carmack. Originally from a Kansas City suburb, Carmack, who is now 35, made his fortune by designing computer games modeled on Garriott’s Ultima. But Carmack’s creations, Doom and Quake, had little of Garriott’s fancifulness and studied moralism. A Wired editor cooed that Carmack’s first-person shooters “napalmed the path for everything that followed” in the games industry. Doom and Quake are alleged to have inspired the hard-core gamers who fired real bullets at schoolmates at Columbine High. But Carmack shrugged off his critics, created new games, and immersed himself in Armadillo Aerospace, whose Web site identifies Carmack as “our fearless leader.” The company’s idea is to build a suborbital rocket controlled by computers and fueled by hydrogen peroxide. Carmack and his pals have reportedly gotten the rocket off the ground in at least one test flight.

The greatest stir in Texas was caused by Jeff Bezos, a 42-year-old billionaire and the founder of Bezos’ stepfather was an engineer at Exxon in Houston during Jeff’s grade-school years. Described in Fast Company as a “supergeek,” Bezos likes to tell stories about summers spent castrating cattle and laying pipe on his grandfather’s ranch in Cotulla. Bezos dreamed of being an astronaut; in his 1982 high school valedictory speech in Florida, he outlined a scheme for colonizing space. Eighteen years later, riding high on the fortune, Bezos founded Blue Origin. Its engineers envisioned suborbital flights on a rocket fueled by reusable liquid propulsion. Bezos and his staff bragged on their designs for life-support and mission-abort systems. All of that was dandy, as long as the stories were coming out of Bezos’s headquarters, in Seattle. But then, in 2004, the mysterious tycoon started buying up three adjoining Texas ranches, totaling 165,000 acres, near Van Horn.

Unbeknownst to Bezos, a Midland-based group of investors was already snatching up Big Bend–area land, hoping to pipe and sell the water to large population centers. Bezos blundered into that thorn patch as an innocent. To defuse his neighbors’ hostility and fear, in January 2005 he walked into the office of the weekly Van Horn Advocate and told the surprised editor that he was just buying his family a recreational ranch so they could share the joys he had had as a boy. But he went on to describe his suborbital scheme and long-term vision of colonies in space. To keep from exaggerating the possible creation of jobs, Bezos added that a very small part of the ranch would be devoted to Blue Origin activities. A gasp of relief resonated among locals: “All he wants to do is shoot off rockets? We were afraid he was after our water.”

Despite all the activity, the Ansari X Prize winner didn’t come out of Texas. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen put $25 million behind a highly respected California aerospace engineer, Burt Rutan, and his design of a rocket christened SpaceShipOne. On October 4, 2004, Rutan’s pilot, Brian Binnie, took off from a small strip in California’s Mojave Desert and flew the craft to a high point of 71.5 miles—outer space defined by the contest was 62.14 miles—and brought it down safely, winning the prize. Waiting on the runway with Allen and Rutan was Sir Richard Branson, a billionaire Brit who’d founded Virgin Records, then his own airline, train line, and hotels group. As an adventurer, he had made his name as a long-distance solo balloonist. But now Branson had started his own space tourism company, called Virgin Galactic, and he announced that he was commissioning Rutan to start work on a fleet of new spacecrafts that could each carry five passengers on suborbital flights by 2008. Virgin Galactic’s posted ticket price was $200,000, almost double what Space Adventures was asking.

Company co-founder Eric Anderson was left saying that he had discussed collaborating with Branson, but nothing had been firmed up. There were signs that the group Garriott had joined might be like the racehorse that bursts out of the gate to an early lead, then ends up eating dust as others overcome its torrid early pace. “You have to wonder,” Garriott murmured to me one night, “where these people have been all along.”

A trim man with a dapper Vandyke beard, Owen Garriott is now 75. He flew his last NASA mission, aboard the Columbia, in 1983. Since then, he and Helen have divorced, and the former astronaut has retired in another space town, Huntsville, Alabama. (Helen now lives in Las Vegas.) On a bright day last February, I joined members of the Garriott family on a visit to Nassau Bay. Garriott’s brother Robert drove us past the family home on Back Bay Court and around the old neighborhood. Later, at Space Center Houston, Owen gave us a walking tour of a model Skylab, where he once trained. A high point of the visit was a poignant exchange between Owen and Richard.

Owen was describing an unexpected difficulty during one of his 1973 space walks. Among the most important tasks was erecting a sail or a canopy that would deflect the sun’s rays from Skylab’s damaged shield. The sail would be hung from snap-on aluminum poles that had gone up stored in a canister. The astronauts usually practiced their space walks underwater, the environment most akin to what they would encounter, but they were afraid to chance corroding the poles with moisture. “So we rehearsed that one on land,” said Owen. “Now, holding the poles together was this snug elastic band. On the ground I could easily slip my hand under the band and slide it off. But in space I was wearing a pressurized glove, and there was no way I could get my fingers under that band. I had to squat down, grab the whole tube, raise it up three or four inches, and with the other hand, slide each tube out. That was the hardest thing I had to do in space.”

Richard interjected with a tale about one of his experiences with Space Adventures. For about $60,000, he had been exposed to eight days of orbital-flight training with Russian cosmonauts. The exercises included a simulated space walk in a neutral buoyancy tank while wearing a space suit. “Around the house, Dad always had these hand exercise grips,” said Richard. “I found out why he was always flexing them. The most horrifically strenuous thing is gripping something with your hands.” “That’s right,” said Owen.

“I was stunned,” Richard went on. “I’m in pretty good shape; I could do everything reasonably well. But if I had to grip with my hands, my heart rate would go way up, and I’d have to take breaks or else I’d make myself sick.”

Owen nodded and said, “In earlier missions—late Gemini, before Apollo—astronauts used to come back with bloody fingers.” In his expression there was not one hint of noting the difference between his real space walk and his son’s high-priced virtual one. Loving dads don’t pull rank.

SINCE THE SUCCESS OF SpaceShipOne in 2004, the private space race has been kicked into a higher gear. The Diamandis-led X Prize Foundation has now announced its sponsorship of the X Prize Cup—“a cross between Champ Grand Prix racing, the America’s Cup, and the Olympics!” pronounces the Web site—and plans to build the Southwest Regional Spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The foundation might have a competitor in nearby West Texas. Blue Origin, the space company of Jeff Bezos, recently gained as program manager Rob Meyerson, an aerodynamics engineer who formerly managed emergency-return and parachute-landing projects for NASA. Speculation about Bezos’s possible construction of a spaceport on his ranch outside Van Horn continues.

There is also an Ansari X Prize rival. Elon Musk recently boasted that his company, SpaceX, is going to be the winner of the America’s Space Prize, which Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow endowed in 2004 with a $50 million purse. Bigelow’s contest challenges entrants to build a spacecraft that can send five people into full orbit twice within sixty days. Musk told Wired News that his Falcon spacecraft would be mated to five Merlin engines and that test flights of the vastly more powerful orbit-ready rocket could blast off this year; the travel business, he claims, could be fully operational by January 2010, the same month Bigelow proposes to open a commercial space station in orbit. Musk further boasts that his ambitions are “multiplanetary.” Young tycoons are characteristically full of themselves. But, which maintains detailed reporting on the entrepreneurship, has concluded, “Musk is closest to the holy grail of manned commercial space flight: orbit.”

Richard Garriott, meanwhile, insists that all this new activity benefits him. Of course he wants to make money off his investments in Space Adventures, but he won’t hesitate to jump aboard another outfit if that team can get him to outer space sooner. “I’m looking for the way that will get me there quickest, with some degree of safety,” he told me.

It was one of the few times that the risk involved in his quest had come up in our conversations. “I understand that you want to be America’s first second-generation astronaut,” I said. “But do you think any of these start-ups have a good chance of bringing you back alive?”

“Yes, I do,” he responded. “Now, the next question is, Will enough people continue paying for this to make it a viable business over the long haul? Look at it this way. Every year about two hundred people go off to climb Mount Everest. The cost of those trips is about seventy thousand dollars per person. And twenty-five percent of those people die! One fourth of them get killed. That degree of risk—death—is a cost I can’t imagine people absorbing. But they do. I’ll guarantee you, just about every one of those people will choose to go to space if it’s safe—and it will be—and if they can do it for a hundred grand.”

Garriott wistfully acknowledged, though, that his perspective is not the mainstream’s. “I was in high school before I realized that this upbringing of mine was not normal. Everybody I knew was going to space. I thought we all were.”

For the story behind this story, read our interview with writer-at-large Jan Reid.

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