Richard Garriott’s long trip from Akalabeth to Ultima to outer space

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In 2008, Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series and semi-famous weirdo, became the world’s sixth “space tourist”. That is, he paid Space Adventures Ltd $30,000,000 to put him on a Russian rocket in Kazakhstan and shoot him off the planet at 17,500 miles per hour.

A man on a mission, after the jump

At the time, I had a vague notion this was taking place, largely because the follies of the idle rich make for easy news and my ears prick up if I hear Garriott’s name. After all, this is the guy who made Ultima, the foundation of my love for video games.

Now, I have never been what you would call a space guy — I shared a passive interest with most children, but it never blossomed into fascination — so I didn’t wonder much about the details. Garriott is famously eccentric, so why not spend 600 years worth of my salary on a ten day vacation? But Man on a Mission, a movie that documents Garriot’s trip, makes is clear this wasn’t just some crazy rich guy’s dream. This was the culmination of a lifetime of focused planning, investment, and work.

Man on a Mission begins with a brief retelling of Garriott’s life through interviews with him and his family. I knew some of the basics of his story. He wrote his first commercial game in high school and went on to found Origin Systems. Origin developed and/or published not just the Ultima games, but several other landmark franchises and made Richard and his brother Robert very wealthy.

What I didn’t know was that space was Garriott’s first real love. When he was 12 years old, his father, Owen, spent 59 days on Skylab. Richard’s eyesight would hold him back from following in the footsteps of his astronaut father, so he saw only one recourse. As early as high school, Garriott was investing his substantial video game money* in space-related ventures, working toward the day that he could claw his way off the planet through means other than NASA. He finally found that dream in reach when he secured a seat on the launch in October, 2008.

That is the point at which the film gets going. We follow Garriott through months of testing and training, to Russia, to Kazakhstan, and eventually to a lengthy sequence shot on the International Space Station itself.

The film is rather short at 83 minutes, and as a result, it is perhaps a shallower than I would have liked. I sometimes got the nagging feeling there was some minor governmental whitewash. Not in the sense that anything particularly juicy was excised, but simply that the camera wasn’t permitted access for a truly in-depth exploration of what cosmonauts go through**.

I suspect that a real space geek might be frustrated at the way the film skips across the surface of Garriott’s training experience, but I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed in the final act of the movie. Once the camera is actually in space, even the most mundane subject is fascinating. The interior of the ISS looks like a Terry Gilliam set, with every square inch of surface packed with wires and boxes and straps. One shot beautifully illustrates how astronauts are constantly re-orienting their brains to what is “down”. Watching people eat is a reverse-uncanny valley experience that I find slightly unsettling.

I was primarily interested in this because Garriott made video games, but what this film brought to the table was a surprise. What I half expected to be 90 minutes of some nerd with two rat tails (two!) talking about Arthur C. Clarke was in fact a moving story about hope and destiny. Man on a Mission is a reminder of how strongly our paths can be guided by our families, intentionally or not. And there was some awesome space stuff.

Richard Garriott: Man On A Mission is playing in limited release and is available through Video On Demand.

John Roberdeau is a human male who last wrote something publicly accessible during the Clinton administration. He has no website and eschews social networking of any kind.

* By the time Garriott got out of high school, Akalabeth, a game he made for fun, earned him over $150,000. Ultima IV sold over 1,000,000 copies, and those weren’t pay-$3.00-for-6-games Humble Bundle copies, either. He was 24.
** I was told by the producer that NASA is reconsidering at least one decision: thanks to the tepid clamoring of the internet, the sci-fi short film Garriott shot while on the space station is likely to be included on the DVD.
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