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Game guru going into space

NCsoft
Richard Garriott floats during a zero-gravity flight publicizing his new video game.


The next millionaire space passenger, announced just today by Virginia-based Space Adventures, could be a pioneer on three counts: A year from now, Richard Garriott would be the first video-game superstar to go into space, thanks to his role in developing the Ultima game series and a new game to be released next month. He would also be the first son of an American astronaut to go into space himself.

Last but not necessarily least, Garriott could break new ground in terms of getting his trip sponsored as a commercial venture. "The fundamental goal is to make sure we're demonstrating that this is and can be much more than a personal lark, and really can return more value than the expense," he told me today.

Garriott is the 46-year-old son of Skylab and shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott, and has long been a fan of spaceflight as well as other extreme-adventure pursuits. Known as "Lord British" in the gaming world, he gained fame and financial profit from the Ultima franchise, then went on to develop more titles for the NCsoft gaming outfit.

It takes a while to save up enough money for a trip to the international space station aboard a Russian-launched Soyuz spacecraft, even if you're a game god with your own castle in Texas. Back in 2002, he told an interviewer, "I have to have 15 or 20 million dollars to make that a reality, and that's going to be a while."

Since then, the price tag for a Soyuz flight has gone up to $30 million, but Garriott is counting on a little help from his dad's biotech company and other sponsors. ExtremoZyme, a company co-founded by Owen Garriott, aims to commercialize products found in microbes living in extreme environments - and Richard Garriott said his mission would include protein-crystal experiments that may help ExtremoZyme develop new types of drugs.

The younger Garriott said he was involved in talks with other companies that may participate in the space science mission. "The reason we're announcing it a year ahead of time is really because we have such a commercial focus for this," he told me.

Garriott said he's wanted to go into space ever since he was a kid. "As the son of an astronaut, I think it lingers a bit more," he said. Following up on his video-game success, Garriott invested some of the proceeds in Space Adventures as well as Zero Gravity Corp., and provided financial backing for a Space Adventures study that resulted in the Russians taking on private passengers.

"I funded the study personally, with the intention of being the first private orbital space client," Garriott said. However, when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, "that evaporated my comfort with being able to take that slot," and California investment adviser Dennis Tito went instead.

Now that Garriott's fortunes have rebounded, he's ready to claim the seat he hoped to fill years ago. He told me he has "already spent the better part of a year to get the premedical work handled," including minor medical procedures aimed at making sure he's shipshape for the ride. Garriott expects to pass his preflight medical review in January and begin his cosmonaut training in February.

Garriott said he was impressed by the way Deep Ocean Expeditions, a venture founded by Space Adventures board chairman Mike McDowell, blended adventure tourism with scientific research to keep Russia's fleet of submersibles afloat. The company is best-known for its dives to the Titanic, the Bismarck and other underwater hot spots.

"I think it is a beautiful model of a public-private partnership for the good of science, and to lessen the burden on taxpayers," Garriott told me. "I believe that space has the possibility to follow that same model, and Space Adventures is going to lead the way in proving that model."

Here's today's news release from Space Adventures:

"Space Adventures Ltd., the world's leading space experiences company, announced today that famed game developer Richard Garriott, son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, has begun preparations for a 'commercially active' mission to the international space station (ISS).

"Mr. Garriott's spaceflight, currently planned for October 2008, will be the first in a series of missions that will accommodate commercial activity aboard the ISS.  Involvement from the private sector can include scientific and environmental research and educational outreach programming.

"'It has always been Space Adventures' goal to open the space frontier.  Now, with Richard's flight, we have designed a series of missions devoted to increase commercial involvement in manned space missions,' said Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures.  'It is a very rare occasion when so many commercial opportunities are available in one space mission. We encourage interested parties to contact us.'

"Space Adventures made history in 2001 by organizing the mission of the first private space explorer.  Now, the company continues to bring innovation to manned spaceflight by enabling corporate and nonprofit entities to participate in commercial endeavors on the planet's only orbiting outpost.

"'I am dedicating my spaceflight to science,' said Mr. Garriott.  'It is my goal to devote a significant amount of my time aboard the space station to science, engineering and educational projects.  I understand the necessity for conducting research in extreme environments whether it is collecting microorganisms from deep sea hydrothermal vents to carrying out experiments in the continuous micro-gravity of Earth orbit.' He continued, 'We need to be adventurous in mind and simulate our intellects to answer today's most daunting scientific questions and to invent tomorrow's technological marvels.'

"The first commercial research partner involved in Mr. Garriott's mission is ExtremoZyme, Inc., a biotechnology company co-founded by Owen Garriott. The company plans to conduct protein crystallization experiments in space with proteins that have important cellular functions and are usually associated with common human diseases.  Having access to these superior crystals will enable researchers to learn more about the molecular details of these proteins which is essential for protein engineering and structure-guided drug design.

"'Because of my career, it was almost natural for Richard to be interested in space and exploration.  I am so pleased that he is able to embrace this himself and that he is dedicating his flight to research.  I am very proud of him,' said Owen Garriott, Mr. Garriott's father and former NASA astronaut (Skylab II/SL-3, STS-9/Spacelab-1).

"Interested parties, including commercial and non-profit entities and space enthusiasts, can get involved in Mr. Garriott's spaceflight via his Web site (www.richardinspace.com).  Mr. Garriott will be updating the site continuously via photos, blog entries and individuals can submit questions and suggestions for his mission activities.  'I want to involve as many people as possible in my mission,' said Mr. Garriott."

About Richard Garriott:
Richard Garriott is best known as a key figure in the computer gaming field.  He was one of the earliest and most successful game developers.  Mr. Garriott developed the Ultima series which remains the longest running computer game franchise, and with his brother, Robert, he founded Origin Systems, one of the most respected PC game developers and publishers. Richard also created Ultima Online, which ushered in the new massively multi-player online (MMO) genre, the fastest growing segment in computer gaming today. More recently, he co-founded the North American arm of NCsoft, the world's largest online game developer and publisher.  In October, his latest game, Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa, will ship in North America and in the European Union.  For more information, please visit www.rgtr.com.

About Space Adventures:
Space Adventures, the company that organized the flights for the world's first private space explorers: Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen, Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi, is headquartered in Vienna, Va. with an office in Moscow. It offers a variety of programs such as the availability today for spaceflight missions to the International Space Station and around the moon, Zero-Gravity flights, cosmonaut training, spaceflight qualification programs and reservations on future suborbital spacecrafts. The company's advisory board includes Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, Shuttle astronauts Sam Durrance, Tom Jones, Byron Lichtenberg, Norm Thagard, Kathy Thornton, Pierre Thuot, Charles Walker, Skylab/Shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev. For more information, please visit www.spaceadventures.com.

There is the matter of Russian tycoon-politician-adventurer Vladimir Gruzdev, who was rumored to be on deck for a trip to the space station as early as next fall, but today's announcement implies that Gruzdev would have to take a later flight.

Based on the current schedule, the younger Garriott would become the world's second spacefaring son of a spaceman, just months after the first, said NBC News space analyst James Oberg.

"It's long been known that cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, 35, son of three-time veteran cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov (now 60), was training for a space mission to the international space station. He blasts off in April," Oberg wrote in an e-mail.

Volkov and Garriott might even meet in orbit a year from now, Oberg observed.

There have been plenty of other family connections in space, usually involving husband-and-wife astronauts. One shuttle mission even had a husband and wife flying together - which sparked some whispering about the prospects for studying sex in space. (The couple in question divorced after that mission.)

Currently, there are two twin brothers in NASA's astronaut corps: Scott Kelly, who commanded the most recent shuttle mission, and Mark Kelly, who is due to command a mission next year.

Update for 4:45 p.m. ET Sept. 28: Reuters has some additional quotes from Garriott:

  • "I think everyone has the fantasy or the desire to travel in space. But for me, I grew up in an environment where not only was my dad actually going to space but both of my next-door neighbors were astronauts, the guy behind me over the fence was an astronaut. Basically, the whole neighborhood was either astronauts or engineers in support of NASA. I just sort of assumed that one day we would all be going to space."
  • "My income in the computer gaming industry superseded my dad's income as an astronaut while I was in high school."