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DNA fingerprints in orbit

Sergei Remezov / Reuters file
Click for video: Millionaire spaceflier-to-be
Richard Garriott undergoes training at Russia's Star
City cosmonaut complex. Learn more about Garriott's
plan to deliver genetic fingerprints to orbit.


Space: the final frontier ... for your DNA.

Millionaire game guru Richard Garriott didn't know what to expect when he offered to bring along a collection of digitized genetic fingerprints to the international space station. Even the soon-to-be spaceflier says he was amazed by the response.

This week, what started out as a video-game publicity stunt is getting TV exposure on "The Colbert Report," proving how eager even celebrities are to leave their mark on space.

"That desire to participate ... in the dream of spaceflight is fairly universal," Garriott told me over the phone from Russia's Star City training complex last week. "It's much more ingrained than even I had predicted."

Garriott is including DNA fingerprints from more than 100 game players and notables, along with other digital goodies, on a hard drive he's bringing with him when he launches to the space station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in October. The 47-year-old video game designer, who is the son of retired NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, paid an estimated $30 million for the 10-day trip.

The younger Garriott told me that the Operation Immortality DNA project - which piggybacks on one of his best-known games, Tabula Rasa - provides an opportunity for people to "travel with me into space here next month."

"It's just been striking how interested people were, and how they vied for position," Garriott said.

Regeneration? Sorry, Stephen
Comedian Stephen Colbert, host of the TV show, has been among the cagiest of the celebrities invited to contribute their genetic code. In a statement last week, he joked that Operation Immortality could bring him "one step closer to my lifelong dream of being the baby" who looms over Earth at the end of the classic science-fiction film "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Unfortunately for Colbert and the other Operation Immortality participants, the genetic information being sent to the station won't be quite enough to allow for cloning in the event of Earth's destruction. This isn't like earlier schemes to send actual samples into space. Instead, only a selection of each participant's genetic markers - analogous to the raw data from paternity or family ancestry tests - will be encoded on the space-certified hard drive. But that's enough for Garriott's purposes. "It's clearly enough of a fingerprint to identify individuals," he said.

The concept behind Operation Immortality plays off the plotline for the Tabula Rasa game.

"The back story for Tabula Rasa is that Earth, in just a few years, is going to face a significant challenge: an evil alien invasion," Garriott explained. "If that fate were to befall the earth, or if some other natural challenge were to befall humanitiy, the Immortality Drive being stored on the ISS might be placed where the survivors on Earth, or future alien races, could go to find out about the human race and maybe even rebuild the human race."

Garriott said about three dozen "notables" from different walks of life were invited to swab their cheeks and send in their DNA samples for analysis. The Operation Immortality Web site also offers a trial version of the Tabula Rasa game, and game players are selected on a random basis to join the operation. The online contest wraps up next week, said David Swofford, a spokesman for game publisher NCsoft.

Garriott's Immortality Drive will contain digital descriptions of Tabula Rasa characters, as well as the game program itself. But the designer had to give up the idea of actually playing the game online from space: The space station's Internet service is pretty pricey - and besides, there's the computer virus threat to consider.

"It's not only an expensive route ... but it's also one that they're understandably extremely worried about, for example, getting hackers or other people who trace packets back through the system on the ISS, and damage the Internet on the ISS," Garriott said. 

More than fun and games
Operation Immortality is just one of the twists to Garriott's mission, which was brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures. Even though he and his predecessors are often called "space tourists," Garriott insisted that he's "not just going as a tourist, but rather to go and live and work in space, and find a way to contribute through my time in space."

He said that's an attitude he picked up from his father, now aged 77, who flew aboard the Skylab space station in 1973 and on the space shuttle in 1983.

"If you happen to be lucky enough to stumble into, or buy your way into one of the rare or valuable places within this reality, it's really important to find a way to make the most of your time with that rare opportunity," the younger Garriott said.

As part of the scientific agenda, he's planning to take pictures of some of the places on Earth that his father documented during Skylab's photographic survey. The pictures will be compared to gauge the effects of climate change, deforestation and pollution as well as environmental remediation efforts. Garriott also will conduct protein-growth experiments that build upon work done at Extremozyme, one of the ventures that he and his father founded.

On the educational side of the mission, Garriott plans to do some video demonstrations of zero-G experiments for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. He'll also put on an art show - creating paintings as well as displaying them. "I'll be floating droplets of paint in microgravity and basically catching them with the canvas," he explained. When he returns to Earth, the artwork will be auctioned off, with the money going to the Challenger Center.

Looking backward, looking forward
Speaking of money, Garriott has acknowledged that the bulk of his video game fortune is going toward this one spaceflight - but in this case, the bank balance is not his primary concern.

"I've been pursuing this forever, investing in all the ways I could in order to make this opportunity show up. ... I look at this as what I've been earning the money for."

That attitude dates back to Garriott's childhood in Houston, when he was surrounded by astronauts and naturally assumed that everyone would eventually go into space.

"One day, the NASA optometrist came to me and said, 'Hey, Richard, your eyesight's really bad. I'm very sorry to be the one to inform you, but that's going to prevent you from ever being selected as an astronaut,'" Garriott recalled. "For me, that was like saying, 'Hey, by the way, you are no longer going to be a member of the club that everyone you know is a member of.'"

Rather than giving up, Garriott persevered: He struck it rich in the video game industry, and invested money for decades in ventures ranging from Spacehab to Space Adventures. He intended to become the first-ever spaceflier to pay his own way into orbit - but when his portfolio shrank in the Internet bust, he had to give way to California millionaire Dennis Tito in 2001.

Now it's Garriott's turn - and as luck would have it, the first son of a NASA astronaut to fly into space himself is due to meet up with space station commander Sergei Volkov, the first spacefaring son of a Russian cosmonaut.

"Both of us are very happy that we get the chance to usher in the second generation of spaceflight together," Garriott said, "although I think we're going to be more excited about it once I get to orbit, and more when we get back to ground."

He's not worried about the flight ... much. "I definitely do not feel more at risk than I did prior to making the decision," he told me. "That being said, I have learned all kinds of new and interesting ways to harm yourself in space." (For example, you could conceivably suffocate in a cloud of carbon dioxide while you sleep, if the life support system went haywire.)

Garriott hasn't yet formulated a detailed plan for life after orbit - although he's sure that he'll want to promote efforts to get private individuals involved in spaceflight, "and not just as tourists." Who knows? The experience also might suggest some new twists for Garriott's future video games. That's what happened after Garriott's past adventures to Antarctica, the deep ocean and other frontiers.

"If you look at the games that I've created, all of my explorations of reality also show up in my games," Garriott said.