Richard Garriott, a successful computer game developer and son of Skylab and shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott, discussed his upcoming $30-million spaceflight to the International Space Station with reporter Irene Klotz in an interview last October.
Air & Space: What is it about flying in space that appeals to you personally?
Garriott: If you poll the world populace, something like 80 percent of humanity would say they would like to go if they could. But for me, of course, I grew up in an environment where not only was my dad actually going to space, both of my next-door neighbors were astronauts, the guy behind me over the fence was an astronaut going to space, basically the whole neighborhood was either astronauts or engineers in support of NASA.
I grew up believing a couple of key things: One is that people do go to space, and therefore I kind of assumed that someday we would all be going to space. However, I also at a fairly young age realized that not only were my dad and all the other astronauts I saw around me extremely well-prepared to have been selected as a NASA astronaut, but that there were many thousands of others who were equally qualified that were not selected. So I fairly quickly realized that if I was going to go to space, it would have to be by some new and different method than my dad had gone to space.
So while computer games have been my vocation, my personal and private investing and side hobby has been in exploration and adventure travel, with a focus on getting civilians into space. Space Adventures, which made history by sending the first civilian into space, is a company that I was the earliest investor in, and still the largest investor, and I'm thrilled that now we're finally able to allow me to take that journey.
A&S: Did you ever think about applying to NASA to become an astronaut?
Garriott: No, because I knew quite early that my personal educational interests and my personal creative drive to create this high-tech art known as computer games was not just a great career for me on its own, but just as importantly, was not among the search criteria for NASA.
A&S: The companies that you're looking for to sponsor research, would they also be contributing, or are you donating your time while in space?
Garriott: Some of both. One of the big messages that we're trying to get out with my flight is that we can provide direct scientific and economic value that makes spaceflight a return on the investment. I've charted a course that proves this point with other forms of extreme exploration and adventure travel that I've undertaken. For example, in partnership with my father, we have taken submarine trips to the seafloor to collect mud from hydrothermal vents, where we've collected extremophile bacteria. We've gene-sequenced and developed protein strains that have interesting commercial applications, and we have a business that sells some of the product developed from those extremophiles. Similarly, on trips to Antarctica we brought back meteorites to share with university institutions for study, and have taken ice core samples to find extremophiles that live in that environment from which we hope to develop commercial products. We believe there is great economic value in microgravity. One of the first experiments we're taking up is known as protein crystallization. One of our partners in that is my dad's company, ExtremoZyme, and we believe that activity will pay dividends that will ultimately provide value to offset some of my investment. Time in orbit and an astronaut to operate an experiment is an extremely rare commodity. The fact that I've subsidized this trip means we believe lots of people will find this a very valuable opportunity.
A&S: What are the commercial potentials of extremophiles?
Garriott: Most of the life we're familiar with lives at one atmosphere of pressure and in liquid water that is warmer than freezing and below boiling. In fact, you sterilize things often by boiling them. The creatures that live by these hydrothermal vents live in extraordinarily high pressure and temperature—with no oxygen. Because of that, the microbes themselves, as well as a lot of proteins that you can extract from them, have properties that allow them to function in these unusual conditions. When you're trying to develop, for example, a strain of bacteria to scatter onto oil slicks to disintegrate them before they wash up on shore, these kinds of extreme life forms are very useful.
A&S: How many days do you expect to get on the International Space Station?
Garriott: Between 10 and 14 days.
A&S: Are you opting for a spacewalk?
Garriott: It's something that I would love to do. Interestingly, my father used to hold the world record for spacewalking time because his job on Skylab was to change out the film on the solar camera regularly.A spacewalk is generally considered the pinnacle of space activity, and the thing that's fought over most by astronauts and cosmonauts. But we're still trying to figure out if that's going to be possible for me. Part of it kind of depends on what kind of experiments and things we discover to do on the outside of the International Space Station.
A&S: NASA abandoned protein crystallization research in space. Why are you pursuing it?
Garriott: Twenty years ago protein crystal growth became popular because of the belief that when you crystallize objects or molecules known as proteins in space, there are no convection currents or other forces to cause perturbations in the fluid medium. You get more pure crystals. However, the way you would analyze one of those crystals was with X-ray diffraction, and the limits of imagery of X-ray diffraction 20 years ago couldn't really tell much difference between a gravity-born crystal and a microgravity-born crystal. Even though objectively you could tell the crystals were bigger and more pure when grown in space, the practical results weren't that much different to justify the desire to be in microgravity. What's happened in the last 20 years, and especially quite recently, is the imagery technology from X-ray crystallography, as well as a couple of other key advances like neutron beam diffraction, is providing a much higher resolution. There's a whole variety of proteins where the microgravity environment really does appear to provide this advantage.
A&S: What is it that you are most looking forward to doing in space?
Garriott: First of all there is microgravity itself. Given the 30-second stints that I've spent in microgravity already, it is one of the most joyful experiences people can have. But even more important is the opportunity to view the Earth. Most every astronaut that I've grown up knowing has described in a very deep and profound way seeing the Earth from space, how you take in the whole of Earth and watch the natural processes in action, whether it's weather or volcanism or active surface activities. On the night side, you can see all the cities glowing and see the power consumption of humanity and also how thoroughly humanity is spreading across the globe.
My dad, having been selected because of his science background, and most other astronauts I know are very low-key about [their experience in] space....I'd go home and say, "Hey, dad, the kids at school are asking me what it was like to go into space," and his answer was, "It was nominal, a lot like training. If you were going to compare it to something, you compare it to scuba diving." But he rarely would express an emotional connection to the experience. I hope that I'm a good candidate to relate back to teachers and students and others what the experience is like on a more personal level.
A&S: Where did you go to school?
Garriott: The University of Texas in Austin.
A&S: Did you graduate?
Garriott: I did not. I'm a classic case. I was making computer games, was actually one of the earliest developers of computer games as the industry evolved. My income in the computer gaming industry surpassed my dad's income as an astronaut while I was in high school. So even though I attended the university for a couple of years, as my income level went up, my grade point average when down and ultimately I decided to focus on the business, which was thriving. The choice was pretty obvious.