I had the opportunity this week to visited a home perched high in the scenic hills outside of Austin, TX, stuffed full of enough priceless art exhibits and rare curios to leave the curator of any world class museum drooling. And featured prominently among them were items sure to leave any space-race kid breathless with excitement. For this is the home of Richard Garriott; video game pioneer, Vice-President of Space Adventures, recent visitor to the International Space Station, and most refreshing for ultra successful capitalists, a staunch, unyielding progressive! I've posted pics and a brief description of the tour Mr. Garriott conducted of his spectacular home, and a full length version of the mission interview with more questions and answers, pics, and some video. Below are a few highlights of that discussion.
DarkSyde: When did you first decide you were going to go into space?
Richard Garriott (RG): I can't remember ever not thinking I would go into space. I grew up in Houston, just outside NASA's Johnson Space Center. My father, Owen Garriot, spent 60 days on Skylab and another ten days on a Spacelab, my next door neighbor was astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson. Rocket scientists and astronauts lived all around me. So I grew up thinking this is normal, this is what grownups do, they build rockets and fly into space.
What do you think of the term 'space tourist'?
RG: I absolutely abhor it. It pains me it has become the standard nomenclature. There have been civilian astronauts and military astronauts, now there are also private astronauts. And I'm can explain why private astronaut really does apply to my flight.
So, on 12 Oct 2008 you’re strapped into a capsule atop a Soyuz TMA 13. Tell us, what it was like, what went through your mind, at ignition and during ascent?
RG: The night before I was greatly intrigued, and greatly relieved that, finally, all the negotiations were over. The next day I rode on an elevator to the top of the gantry for the first time, and then squeezed, and I do mean squeezed, into a tiny, pitch black compartment with my two fellow astronauts so small and cramped you can barely move. Then we waited ... in the simulations, we skipped through lengthy holds, but in the real thing we laid there through them, one lasted almost an hour, while external checks are performed. When the moment of truth nears -- there is no countdown like in the US -- a switch is thrown and, after that, forget everything in movies or recreations.
The engine distantly rumbles for a few seconds while the thrust climbs until the rocket lifts off slowly, gently, quietly. There was no vibration, no deafening roar -- at least there wasn't on the inside of a space suit, inside a Soyuz capsule that's inside a streamlined faring -- I could still hear the fans softly humming away. The g's begin to build smoothly, peaking to about 4, which is not much worse than what you feel on a roller-coaster, and you're laying on your back so it's actually pretty comfortable. It reminded me more of a powerful, elegant ballet than anything jerky or violent. There's not much change for the first few minutes after that, on a Soyuz the second stage is already firing when the first cuts out, so you barely feel it. When the second cuts off there's a moment of weightlessness, then the third fires and there's a gentle thrust. Not long after that, we were in low earth orbit.
So you see the earth from orbit, what was that like the first time?
RG: You know it's funny, the first thing I thought was 'Wow! We're awful close! I sure hope they have this calculated right, because, from my window, it looks like we could be coming back quick ...' Consider that on the scale of a classroom globe, LEO is about as high off the surface of that globe as a nickel is thick. Not much room for error there. But of course, they had calculated it right and we were safely in orbit.
After that, well, no camera or video images you've ever seen can possibly do it justice ...
Reading what other astronauts had said about looking down on earth, it sounded to me like they're describing a profoundly spiritual experience. But having done it, those descriptions now make sense to me in a new light. You can see huge swaths of earth, you recognize it; interestingly, I couldn't see the Great Wall of China. But I could see my hometown and my neighborhood, along with the familiar bays and coastlines and cities I've visited. You can see how big and yet how small the earth is at the same time; on the horizon our atmosphere is incredibly thin, beautiful, and fragile. The idea that that layer of air really could be affected by greenhouse gas emissions or forest fires; I knew that intellectually of course, but seeing the thin seam of air, it hit me viscerally, in a different way, in the gut.
Your adventure reportedly cost around 30 million dollars. What would you say to critics who complain about the public good that that pile of money might have done?
RG: Yes, 30 million is about right. The brash answer is I earned this money the old fashioned way, the capitalist way, with hard work and elbow grease building successful businesses. But the more relevant answer goes back to the prior question about the term private astronaut: this wasn't just an expensive lark. It was an investment in a new and exciting field of private enterprises with the potential to transform our world, one I am completely committed to and lucky enough to be intimately involved with.
I conducted research on a number of promising new technologies. Just for one example, there are a special class of proteins, called ligands, that bind to specific regulatory regions on the genomes of deadly microbes. The first step in learning how to synthesize them is to map those complicated shapes. One way to build that map is to grow a crystal around them and then use x-ray diffraction and computer assisted imaging to reconstruct the shape it represents. But it's easy for flaws to form when the delicate growing crystal is getting squashed by gravity, and if just one of the many facets of that crystal is defective, it can ruin the x-ray data. Micro gravity is the ideal environment to avoid that problem, and future work built on mine will help us develop new drugs that will mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.
What benefit is there to the space program, US or otherwise, and taxpayers who funded the development of the technology, in contract spaceflight?
RG: Well the example above is one answer. But in terms of the big picture, I liken it to the exploration of the new world. It took a century or so of government investment to get all that going. But when the navigation and ship building technology had been worked out private venture took over, enormous fortunes were made, the whole world is richer for it, and some of the spinoffs were completely unpredictable. Who would have foreseen that the HMS Beagle would carry a young Charles Darwin to places that fired his imagination and ultimately changed forever our understanding of our place in the natural world?
I could on for hours about what it all might mean in terms of advancing our knowledge, making enormous fortunes for anyone willing to shoulder the risk, and how the whole world will be infinitely richer for it in ways we can't yet imagine.
What was reentry like?
RG: A lot quieter and way more gentle than one might think from watching science fiction or science fact on TV. We drifted away from the ISS, burned off a few hundred meters per second of forward velocity, shed our boosters and a few other non essential items, and down we went, completely ballistic, like a hollow cannonball. Soon fiery plasma was scorching the windows, then a drag chute opened and the main canopies inflated. The one surprising thing that did happen was a bottle fell down next to my head right about then. When my seat lifted up on an air bladder to absorb the landing shock, that bottle wedged my head kind of sideways. We hit, it was bit of a jolt, we got dragged a little, and then someone was knocking on the hatch.
Would you do it again?
RG: Oh, I am going to do it again. Developing space exploration and commercial applications is what I do, it's my career. I and several other high technology business people are investing big in commercial space, establishing X-prizes for engineers and students to try their hand at coming up with better designs. We're designing a new generation of reusable rockets, habs, and planning the first permanent settlements in space and on the moon or Mars.
I'm bullish on space -- the first space industry billionaire is alive and might even be in their 40s -- I'm betting on it, because I'm bullish on us, on human ingenuity. I made several million dollars off my 30 million dollar flight. If we can get that cost down to the single digit millions, that's where it starts to become profitable for private companies and research organizations to buy space time. And given our collective thirst for adventure, exploration, and technology, I think that's a bet we're all going to collect on a lot sooner, and far more handsomely, than most people dare to imagine today.
Richard Garriott spoke passionately about space travel with us for several hours, recounting virtually every moment of his flight and providing a wealth of background information. His responses above are highlights only and represent my notes and best recollection. Any errors are solely my responsibility. This interview would not have been possible without the help of fellow Kossack Ferris Valyn, and my two friends who came along -- one shown to the left -- and happily handled some of the practical and transcription details. A full length versions with more Q & A is here, some photos of Richard's home, art and technology collection, and a brief description is here.