AIN Blog: Man on a Mission

 - January 24, 2012, 1:41 PM
Garriott (l.) made it into space but not by the way he originally planned.
Computer programming entrepreneur Richard Garriott, (l.) fulfilled his lifelong dream as a passenger on a Soyuz spacecraft. (Image courtesy: Beef and Pie Productions)

For fans of the U.S. space program, the next few years will be as much about looking at the past as gazing ahead to the future. With last year’s 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s flight marking him as the first American in space, and next month’s 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s first American orbital flight, the half-century anniversaries are going to tick by fairly quickly, culminating in 2019 with the big kahuna itself: the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I don’t personally remember the event, being the tender age of one year old at the time, but as the ultimate expression of American “can-do” spirit, the golden anniversary should get some high recognition.

One person who does remember that achievement well is Richard Garriott. For those who are about my age, he may be known more commonly by his alter ego “Lord British,” the driving force behind the wildly successful Ultima series of computer swords and sorcery roleplaying games. While I remember playing one of the versions many times on a friend’s Apple computer in junior high school, I must admit that I didn’t know that Lord British was a real living, breathing person until recently, when I watched a screening copy of a newly released independent documentary titled Man on a Mission.

Growing up, Garriott had originally wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, which was not a slamdunk career choice when your father is NASA scientist and Skylab and space shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott. Growing up amid the NASA community during the golden years of the space program, when the exploits of astronauts and the latest space mission were fodder for the television evening news, the younger Garriott quickly found that his poor eyesight would preclude any chance of his being selected to the elite astronaut corps. Instead, his path to fortune and fame began in the 1970s, when at the urging of friends he self-published an early computer game that sold more than 30,000 copies. His later Ultima products cemented his place among the insanely wealthy, and in homage to his childhood dreams allowed him to invest in private space access companies and become a champion of space privatization.

According to the movie, it was Garriott who first approached NASA with the idea of “buying a seat” into space, and once the U.S. agency refused, he then contacted the Russians, who eventually agreed and placed a $20 million price tag for a seat on a upcoming Soyuz flight. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, Garriott was hit hard and left unable to afford the hefty price tag. He had to watch as his title of “first space tourist” went instead to investment strategist Dennis Tito.

Undeterred, Garriott (who has also ventured down to Titanic and led meteorite-hunting expeditions in Antarctica) eventually recouped his losses and signed on again for another space flight (this time to the tune of $30 million) which would give him 12 days in space.

The movie details the months of training that he went through as part of the crew of Soyuz mission TMA 13 in 2008. Along the way we learn that during his five months at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training center, Garriott spent four hours a day in intensive Russian language classes so he could understand the Cyrillic marked controls aboard the spacecraft and communicate with the crew and ground controllers.

To construct his seat liner for the cramped Soyuz capsule, Garriott was nearly encapsulated in plaster to create a mold of his body. Since Russian capsules alight on terra firma rather than water, the final impact can be jarring and the more form-fitting the seat, the better chance of escaping without injury. Garriott, as part of the three-man crew, also participated in many forms of training, including an open-water emergency capsule evacuation, which had to be stopped after two-and-a-half-hours due to the crew’s heat exhaustion.

For the flight itself, Garriott brought along a video camera to make what some have dubbed “the most expensive home movie ever.” He recorded and narrated his experiences in the close confines of the Soyuz capsule and while roaming the tunnels of the International Space Station. There are of course the obligatory “eating globules of water” shots, but Garriott’s self-shot footage during his tour on the space station seems as fresh as his enthusiasm. You truly get the idea you are watching someone fulfill his life’s ambition.

With his poor eyesight long since corrected by laser surgery (a procedure since approved for astronauts), Garrriott also became the first such person in space, and NASA exploited this opportunity by scheduling him for a battery of visual acuity tests. Garriott even manages to slip in some science along the way, demonstrating how a gyroscope works in space and managing his own crystal growth experiment.

Garriott’s father was the first astronaut to take a ham radio into space and talk with people on the ground below, including his sons. In a further closing of the cycle, the younger Garriott is shown talking to his father from orbit via ham radio. In another bit of torch-passing, Garriott used a newly developed software program that enabled him to take the same pictures of areas of Earth that his father did aboard Skylab, thus depicting any changes which had occurred in a generation.

While he might have missed out on becoming the first space tourist, Garriott can still take solace in the fact that he was the first second-generation American to follow a parent into space. In an odd coincidence, he shared his capsule for the return to earth with Sergei Volkov, the first second-generation space traveler. When the capsule made its bumpy landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan it was greeted by the recovery crew (a very casual, commonplace seeming event), and both the elder cosmonaut and astronaut were on hand to greet their space-faring progeny.

As for the movie, for those would-be astronauts lacking tens of millions of dollars to go through the process and make the flight themselves, experiencing it through Garriott’s eyes is the next best thing. Where and when to see Man on a Mission.