A First-Class Seat to Stargazing
Beef & Pie Productions shines a light on Richard Garriott's space travel in 'Man on a Mission'
Richard Garriott, the wealthy and revered founder of Austin-based gaming company Origin Systems, was having a personal epiphany of the type usually reserved for bearded shamans, those teetering on the razor's edge between life and death, and the few among our species who finally, ultimately, catch up to and surpass whatever dream it is they've been chasing since their own proverbial square one. It happened for Garriott in October 2008, when he was on board the International Space Station, in the two-way, $30 million culmination of the Ultima Online and Tabula Rasa creator's lifelong dream to follow in the zero-gravity footsteps of his father, Skylab astronaut Owen K. Garriott.
"Even the very first moment you look out the window from 250 miles up, traveling at 17,000 miles-an-hour around the Earth, you get this spectacularly beautiful view," explains Garriott, "but almost immediately your perspective begins to shift.
"You go, 'Wow, I really, truly understand the scale of the Earth' – which was kind of cool – but then you also notice how very, very thin the atmosphere is on the surface of the Earth. It's just a few multiples higher than the clouds, and in fact the space station, in orbit, is only a few multiples higher than the clouds."
That sobering realization that, yes, we are all on one big, blue marble after all, and said marble is getting really, really crowded, is part of what led to the forthcoming documentary on Garriott's passion for space travel and his ultimate vacation getaway to the heavens, Man on a Mission, which chronicles in exquisite, genuinely awe-inspiring detail not only Richard Garriott's wonderful space madness but also that of Garriott Sr. and, indeed, the American and Russian space programs as a whole. It's an interlocked and thrilling wonder story of two generations of dreamy stargazers and pragmatic, practical Earthmen who gave their lives and livelihoods over to their childhood dreams of space travel and not only lived to tell the tale but in the process kick-started the moribund U.S. space program (privatization turned out to be the way to go).
Producer Brady Dial and Austin film production company Beef & Pie, headed by director Mike Woolf and co-director and cinematographer Andrew Yates, were on hand to document Garriott's amazing journey. The result, screened in rough-cut form three weeks ago at the Alamo Drafthouse, is that rare kind of documentary that's both utterly human in its subject matter – man's eternal quest for the stars – and bracingly, often humorously, down-to-earth.
While producer Dial and the Beef & Pie team fine-tune their film (they're currently in distribution discussions with the History Channel, PBS, and the National Geographic Channel, among others), Garriott, for his part, has found himself a changed man since exiting the Earth aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and spending a grand total of 10 days in the cramped confines of the International Space Station. Somewhere, Ray Bradbury is smiling, and Robert Heinlein is grinning.
"The most impactful aspect of looking at the Earth from space," says Garriott, "is when you realize, after seeing it from a dozen or more rotations, that every fertile part of the Earth you can see from space is fully occupied by people. If it's not a city, it's a farmland. Even in the hard-to-adapt areas like high mountains covered with snow or vast deserts or deep, swampy areas in the Amazon – those are all being terraformed to make them habitable by people.
"It's striking to then realize how complete the footprint of humanity is upon the surface of the Earth. You understand, at the very least, how much more expensive it's going to become to exploit these more and more difficult places on the Earth."
The launching into space of citizen astronauts such as himself, Garriott predicts, will before long become commonplace, thanks to companies such as Space Adventures, which helped to make the game maven's kidhood dream come true. Then, too, is the fact that the revitalization of President John F. Kennedy's own all-American dream (now with the more-or-less full cooperation of our long-ago interstellar nemeses, the Russians) is becoming, for want of a better metaphor, fully grounded in the cash-rich reality of private entrepreneurs such as Garriott.
Asked if he plans to return to space and if mankind is indeed on the cusp of a second (and perhaps more realistic) era in space travel, Garriott answers with an unconditional "Yes."
"Unquestionably that is going to happen. It's happening now. A lot of folks of my generation grew up as 'orphans of Apollo.' Those people who were inspired to get into science, engineering, and math, many of us became captains of this high tech industry that we've just seen this great boom in. And I also think people of my generation are disappointed that the promise of Apollo didn't get followed through on.
"What's interesting to see, though, is that literally in the last couple of years, all of those high tech entrepreneurs are turning around and finding ways to contribute to the privatization of space. This is the same generation that [is] now in the halls of government. There is a clear movement, in all sectors – from within NASA, from the voting populace, and from government – that believes that [manned space flights] are a worthy goal.
"We're going to be able to pull it off at a cost that will come down to a low enough point that not only will lots and lots of people get a chance to get to personally go into space, but good, self-sustaining businesses will be able to be created in space."
In the end – or is that the beginning? – Garriott's mission has left him a changed man, and for the better.
"I'm not a spiritual person," he says, "but I would definitely describe seeing the Earth from space as what you might call a spiritual experience. There you are in this short-sleeved, comfortable environment inside your spaceship, and yet just outside is, you know, death from many sources. There's temperature extremes, the lack of air, the lack of pressure that will cause your fluids to boil off, radiation exposure. You're in this very easy-to-relax-in environment, yet you're also surrounded by this phenomenally harsh environment.
"Similarly," notes Garriott, "during reentry I was sitting next to a window where just a few inches from my shoulder is a plasma that is hotter than the surface of the sun and the vehicle is literally melting away around you. The science has been well worked out, but you can't help but realize that you're just right on the razor's edge of existence."
That's a pretty good definition of Richard Garriott's whole life up to this point, too. To paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, Austin's most famous creator of fictional, space-based realms really has gone "to infinity and beyond," or close enough for the time being. Mission accomplished.
Information on the continuing saga of Beef & Pie's documentary can be found at www.beefandpie.com.