Hitching a Ride into Space

Photo by Jesse Garrett
Photo by Jesse Garrett

Private astronaut Richard Garriott shared his perspective of space during the panel “Richard Garriott: A Private Journey to the ISS—a Retrospective 10 Years On” Friday at 10AM in the Hilton Crystal Ballroom. Garrett flew privately to the International Space Station as a member of VC15, Visiting Crew 15, on October 12, 2008, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and returned 12 days later. He is one of only seven people who have paid their way into space, something he was able to afford only because of his success as a video game developer. At the time, Garriott had thought access to space would soon be cheaper and easier, but so far that has not yet happened.

Garriott’s interest in space developed partly because of his father, Owen K. Garriott, a former NASA astronaut who spent 60 days on the Skylab Space Station in 1973 and 10 days aboard Spacelab-1 in 1983. But the moment he formed a solid resolution to go into space was when a NASA doctor told him he couldn’t. From then on, he was determined to go. After earning sufficient funds from his video games, he negotiated with Russia to take him to the ISS.

The experience is something he’ll never forget. After eight-and-a-half minutes from engine ignition to cut off, his first thought was that he wasn’t as high up as he thought he’d be, and he found himself hoping they had reached orbit. If not, re-entry was not going to be fun. At the time, they had to live in the Souyz for two days before entering the ISS. He found space to be “incredibly beautiful but unquestionably hostile.” You can put a hole through the wall with something as innocent as a screwdriver. He brought up the recent puncture hole in the ISS. The station is so fragile compared to the vast emptiness of space. But at least the hole was easy to fix with a little bit of duct tape. If it had gone through an astronaut, however, it could have been deadly.

As a science officer Garriott performed experiments and also gathered a photo archive, photographing about 500 targets in 12 days. To accomplish this task, he joined a group and modified their program, “Windows on Earth,” so it would tell him when and where to take the pictures. The system he developed has been adopted by NASA as their official tool.

Garriott seems to have a friendly rivalry with his famous father. Since his father was the first man to use ham radio from space, Garriott decided to contact as many people as he could all over the world. “Whatever my dad did,” Garrott joked, “I have to do it better.” Garriott was the first to send slow-scan TV views back to earth via ham radio. He used the ham radio during every free moment and ended up contacting ten times as many people than his father had, only because he didn’t know his dad’s numbers. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have worked so hard.

Before leaving for space, he told his father that he thought it would be fun to pull a prank. He planned to say over the radio, “Wait…there it is…outside the window…a UFO!” His dad said, “Don’t you dare!” The older Garriott was afraid that too many people would take his son seriously, something that had happened to him years ago, when he had described a piece of space junk he had spotted as an unidentified flying object. Which is was, officially. People said his father was a believer and had verified their wild theories of UFOs, aliens, etc.

He decided not to pull that prank, but he did a few other things, like taking a camera on the Soyuz during reentry, which he was not supposed to do. He showed the panel a speeded-up version of the reentry, all the way up to the landing, which he described as “quite a thud.”

Then Garriott told the audience something that he had never spoken of before. The scoop was that, before his flight, Garriott was contacted by the family of James Doohan, who played Scottie on the original Star Trek. They asked him to carry the actor’s ashes into space. Garriott agreed. Since transporting human remains is highly regulated, Garriott decided to smuggle the ashes onboard. He took three envelopes of ashes with him to the ISS. One envelope he hid onboard, and it is still hidden there to this day. The second, he hid in the airlock, so it was blown into space during the next spacewalk. The third he took back to earth and gave to Doohan’s son. It’s been ten years, and Garriott has finally decided it’s time to speak of it publicly.

Garriott supports the private space-race, and noted that Space X is his largest personal investment in such companies. He thinks the best way to get to Mars is to offer a substantial prize to private companies for needed accomplishments such as self-operating farms, fuel and oxygen sequestration, and domed habitats, all of which will be needed for humans to exist for any period of time on Mars. According to Garriott, the biggest problem is going to be radiation exposure, which he thinks will force humans to live as mole-men.

While looking at the earth from space, Garriott was stuck by the “firehose of reality pouring through” his mind. He described it as intimate, viewing the Golden Gate Bridge, the wake of ships going into harbor when he zoomed in on them, yet also the huge things like the tectonic plates and massive weather systems. He realized that there is “no place on earth that humans aren’t.” He saw places that are terraformed, like the manmade islands in Dubai, and giant forest fires in the Amazon and Africa still burning, which no one seems to mention anymore. “I now know the true scale of the earth by direct observation,” he said, a knowledge that still gives him goosebumps. Earth went from being so large to so small, and he realized how important it is that we take care good of it.

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.