Richard Garriott has made a career and more than one fortune as a preeminent computer game designer and creator of the seminal Ultima role playing series. But as the son of SkyLab astronaut Owen K. Garriott, his passion has long been space flight. Now, at a reported cost of more than $30 million, he will become the sixth private citizen to travel into orbit. Garriott is preparing to join the crew of the Soyuz TMA 13 mission as a spaceflight participant, thanks to Space Adventures, a company he helped found. He spoke to TIME about his upcoming voyage from the cosmonaut training facility in Star City, Russia.
How's the training going?
Thursday and Friday were our crew final exams; we passed with pretty much perfect 5 out of 5 scores across the board. For me personally, I felt that I was able to perform my duties satisfactorily, which of course is a good baseline. I now know I'm not a liability.
You’re a second-generation spaceman. Had you applied for the U.S. space program as well?
No, I never applied. I was told no before that ever occurred. Because my father was an astronaut, the NASA clinic was my family doctor, you might say. And one year when I was a young teenager the NASA eye doctor came to me, and as my eyesight was becoming fairly bad, he said, "Hey richard, you've got bad eyesight; I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but that's going to prevent you from ever being selected as a NASA astronaut." I hadn't really thought to myself before then that I was going to be an astronaut; I grew up in a neighborhood where everybody was an astronaut. So it was like being told, You are not eligible for a club that everyone you know is a member of. I was shocked and horrified there briefly, but then fairly quickly made up my mind to say, Hey wait a minute, these guys can't tell me whether I'm allowed to fly into space or not. And so if I'm not going to be eligible to go with NASA I'm just going to have to find my own way.
There are companies like Virgin Galactic now trying to open up commercial space travel right now; did you ever think to yourself, maybe I'll just wait until these are viable and save myself $30 million?
I've been in this a lot longer than there's been a Virgin Galactic. Those of us who founded Space Adventures are, generally speaking, the same people who founded the X-Prize. And the X-Prize is what created the opportunity for Burt Rutan to go build SpaceShipOne, and Virgin Galactic came in and paid to have “Virgin Galactic” painted its tail. They’re a latecomer to the party, but an extremely valuable participant; they'll probably fly the first commercial suborbital flights.
A lesser known detail is that many years went by before we were actually able to fund the $10 million prize for the X-Prize. When we envisioned Space Adventures and the X-Prize, we thought basically the X-Prize would get the ships built, and then Space Adventures would fly them. But without the prize being funded, and therefore no ships being built, we said look, even though NASA won't take private citizens, maybe we’ll be able to convince the Russians. So we went and we talked to the Russians and they said Yeah, well, we might consider it, but even just to figure out if it were possible and how much it would cost, would cost a lot of money. And I actually personally paid for the study to determine if and how private citizens could fly, with the full intention of actually being the first private citizen to fly. However, that's also when the Internet stock bubble burst, and unfortunately for me that meant my ability to pay for that first space flight disappeared, and so we sold my seat to Dennis Tito.
You're in Russia at a very interesting time right now, politically. Have people treated you differently as a result of the diplomatic tensions over the Georgian invasion?
Not at all. Not at all on this side. But I agree with you it's been fascinating to be here during this period politically. For example, you know what Americans always describe, universally, as the Georgian invasion, is not a term that would ever be used over here. I know that I personally do not truly understand the issues involved in this very complicated international situation. However, I don’t think anyone in the United States really understands this issue very well either. And when I say anyone I mean everyone from the CIA to the president to the news media. That really makes me care a lot more about international politics and care a lot more about how the US is projecting its image and its might around the globe.
With China planning to conduct its first ever spacewalk this week and India making noise about its own space program, it almost seems as if there’s a new space race heating up. And this comes at a time when the U.S. is retiring its shuttle program and NASA's scrambling for funding; is the U.S. in danger of falling behind?
There's no question that other countries are really pushing forward, fairly significantly in some cases, right at the time when the U.S. is having what I would describe as a hiccup in its continuity. But I don't think that in the short term we're in any risk of falling behind. If you look at the level of sophistication of U.S. technology involved in space I think it is still really outstanding. However, what is true is that there is a short-term problem looming, associated with what I'll call, broadly, access to space, where the US is at significant risk of having little to no access to space for a few years, thanks to anti-terrorism agreements and the fact that we may not have the shuttle. Long term, I think that as long as the U.S. says look, we really do want to push on to the moon and Mars, I think that's the right way to go. We can easily retool to get there.
One of your most important missions is preserving the DNA of Stephen Colbert for the future population of the human race. How did that come up?
I'm a big fan of the show, and when I was at a gaming [convention], one of my fans came up to me and gave me one of his WristStrong bracelets. I have of course worn it through my training, and we've been editing together a pitch because I thought basically, here was my ticket to get onto the show. And midway through my training, Garrett Reisman, a NASA astronaut who is also a fan of the show, called in from space, to show that he had this on his wrist. In space. And totally scooped me.