America’s Only Second-Generation Astronaut Was Told He’d Never Go to Space. He Made It Anyway.

·13 min read

At the age of 13, Richard Garriott was told he would never be an astronaut.

The family physician, a NASA doctor in Houston, delivered the blow following a routine eye examination. The mere fact that he’d need glasses was enough to dash any hopes of space travel. Countless kids harbor a fervent, if abstract, fantasy of exploring the cosmos, but for Garriott, the son of an astronaut, that dream was more of a blueprint for life, and the diagnosis seemed a cruel injustice. But it also set him on what would prove to be a single-minded, if roundabout, quest.

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“Everyone we knew was an astronaut or somehow involved in putting people into space,” says Garriott, 60, at home in New York. “It felt like I was being randomly kicked out of this club before I was even old enough to decide if this was the future for me. I went through the seven stages of grief—anger, sadness, denial…—before finally thinking, ‘Who is this doctor to tell me that I can’t go into space? If I can’t go by their rules, I’m going to make my own space agency.’ ” And that’s exactly what he did.

Garriott’s is a story of wily creativity and dogged determination, multiple space-oriented enterprises and a litany of false starts. It took him 34 years to achieve his goal, but in the process he became one of the world’s most dedicated, unsung explorers of the land and sea. Only now, having recently been elected the 45th president of the Explorers Club—an elite society of scientists and explorers, founded in 1904 and headquartered in Manhattan—are his travails getting the recognition they deserve.

Garriott with a model of the Soyuz TMA-13 orbital module, where he lived for two days before docking at the International Space Station. - Credit: Chris Buck
Garriott with a model of the Soyuz TMA-13 orbital module, where he lived for two days before docking at the International Space Station. - Credit: Chris Buck

Chris Buck

From an early age, Garriott showed an inquisitive and explorative nature. Some of his earliest memories are of crawling through caves in Arkansas, lighting the way with a pack of matches. His mother was an artist and a naturalist, so vacations were often spent in Yosemite National Park. His father, a physics professor at Stanford University, became one of NASA’s first scientist-astronauts, spending about 60 days—twice the duration of any previous mission—on board the Skylab space station in 1973. He returned to space in 1983 on a 10-day flight of the shuttle Columbia, carrying NASA and the European Space Agency’s Spacelab-1 module.

“I have great memories of my dad going into space,” says Garriott. His house was wired with squawk boxes, which enabled the family to listen in to NASA communications when his dad was on a mission. “And my mom had a little black ‘Batphone,’ with one button. If you pressed that one button, it dialed the mission control at NASA, and if it wasn’t a busy time, they would immediately phone directly up to my dad at Skylab. I could literally dial and ask him how to solve a math problem. Only reflecting on that as an adult do you realize, ‘Wow, that was not that normal.’ ”

After his ocular blacklisting, Garriott focused his curiosity on the emerging tech field, and by his early teens he was an accomplished computer-games designer. By the age of 15, he was running a successful gaming company. During his time studying at the University of Texas, Garriott earned serious cash. He also coined the term “avatar,” among a number of other more esoteric expressions, and later sold his first company, Origin Systems (most notably behind the critically acclaimed Ultima series), to Electronic Arts for around $30 million. Indeed, Garriott genuinely stakes a claim to being one of the founding fathers of video games.

His business expertise and impressive income led to a parade of NASA alumni, including Buzz Aldrin, knocking on his door looking for investment in their various commercial space projects. “Over a decade, I invested in quite a few of these attempts,” Garriott says. “Pretty much all of those were a bust but one. These guys may have been great scientists and engineers, but they were not great entrepreneurs.” And he was no nearer to boarding a rocket himself.

Garriott on a 1992 trip to Africa. - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Garriott
Garriott on a 1992 trip to Africa. - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Garriott

Courtesy of Richard Garriott

Despite his obsession, the young Garriott wasn’t entirely blinkered; he developed quite a reputation for one or two of his spending habits. “I’ve still had a healthy attraction to material objects but perhaps not in the usual way,” he says. “I’ve never had megayachts or planes, but I’ve always had really exotic homes full of secret passageways, observatories and dungeons.” His collections include natural history, automatons, antique scientific apparatuses, medieval arms and armor, and, of course, space oddities. “My homes are mini museums.”

Of all his admittedly speculative investments, only one managed to get off the ground. Spacehab was a 40-person commercial research module that could attach to a shuttle’s payload bay. It flew on three shuttle missions, according to NASA, but then, Garriott says, “NASA told me, ‘We’re not in the business of taking private people to space.’ So close, yet so far.”

Meanwhile, Garriott had been attempting to cajole his way into space via the Ansari X Prize. In 1995, he was part of the board of trustees that offered $10 million to the first nongovernment organization that could build a vehicle capable of flying 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, into space twice within two weeks. Actor Tom Hanks, a patron of the project (last awarded in 2004), has called the prize a masterstroke, adding, “What X Prize could very well do is jump-start a part of space exploration that is based on the active participation of regular Americans.” Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites won the competition with SpaceShipOne, an entry funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. The technology was subsequently bought by Richard Branson and became the precursor to Virgin Galactic.

Still, the prize didn’t get Garriott any closer to his dream, and so eventually his attention turned to Russia, where, when it comes to getting into space, money certainly talks. In 1998, he and Eric Anderson, another entrepreneur with a background in aerospace, cofounded Space Adventures, a company that brokers flights to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. It remains the only company to have successfully privatized space travel. Then the stock market crashed in 2000. “Wiped out financially,” Garriott says, he sold his seat to Dennis Tito, who became the first private citizen to fly into space. “I built another gaming company, sold it and signed up to fly. I’m starting to make payments of tens of millions of dollars to Russia, and this is in 2008”—the year the global economy collapsed. “So I basically go broke again. And then something worse happens. I get a phone call from Russia that says, ‘Hey, by the way, we’ve been doing your detailed medical analysis, and you have a disqualifying medical condition. You’re scrubbed from the flight. Thank you very much for your money. Goodbye.’ That’s my third strike, and I’ve bet my entire net worth on this, repeatedly to get ever closer and have it fail.”

The explorer in Antarctica between 1998-2000. - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Garriott
The explorer in Antarctica between 1998-2000. - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Garriott

Courtesy of Richard Garriott

One of the lobes on Garriott’s liver was malformed, which meant that in the event of depressurization he could suffer internal bleeding. The following Monday, Garriott underwent elective yet extremely risky surgery to remove the lobe, and later that year, after decades of trying, he became the sixth person to fly into space commercially, spending 12 days aboard the ISS.

“When we first reached orbit, as the engines shut down and we all began to float, the vehicle slowly turned so that Earth came into view,” Garriott recalls. “You might expect my first thought to be, ‘Wow, I made it, look at that!’ But in fact it was, ‘Wow, we do not seem as high up as I expected it to appear, I sure hope we are in a perfectly circular orbit, or we are going to be reentering again soon…’ ”

During his time on the ISS, Garriott completed over 30 commercial experiments (both to offset the cost of the trip and to promote business in space), including, in an ironic twist of fate, a study of his eyes for NASA. Thanks to Garriott, people who have had laser eye surgery are now eligible to become astronauts. So don’t, whatever you do, call him a “space tourist.”

“He really is one of the founders of this industry,” says Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures (Garriott has left the company). “He’s helped to break down the barriers between professional and private space flight. And he should be thanked for that foresight and vision.” Shelley pauses, then notes, “As a Star Trek fan, he took up the ashes of the actor who played Scotty [James Doohan] on behalf of the family. He didn’t need to talk about it publicly to get satisfaction because that’s just the kind of guy he is.”

Garriott insists that from an explorational standpoint, nothing beats going into space. And perhaps nobody is better placed to say. Earlier this year, he became the first person to complete Earth’s explorational quadrumvirate. “That’s a braggadocious way to say the first person to have gone pole to pole, space and deep,” he says.

For as long as Garriott has been knocking on space’s door, he’s also been steadily plumbing the depths of the world’s deepest oceans. In March, he and fellow explorers Victor Vescovo and Michael Dubno dived to the bottom of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point. This particular outing may have launched him into the record books, but compared with one or two of his other subsea expeditions, it sounded decidedly routine. Ask him about being pinned to the seabed by debris from the Titanic and you might be put off submarines for life. “There has never been a fatal accident in a deep submersible,” he says. “But there was an interesting moral to that story: Don’t become overconfident with your gear. These incredibly hostile environments can easily overwhelm.”

As his family found out at the North Pole. In 2018, Garriott’s son, then 3, and daughter, 5, became the youngest people to camp at the world’s northernmost point. About two days into the Young Explorers trip, the temperatures were so high that the runway they were using to fly in and out of camp began to break up, and their base started sinking into the sea. “We had to make an emergency evacuation,” says Garriott, grimacing. “What was fascinating in a tragic way was how badly global warming has affected the North Pole.” He laments that conditions are so bad, there hasn’t been a research camp since, and next year may mark the last attempt. But ever the optimist, he adds that the melt-off also presents the “science-fictiony” possibility of de-extinction. “A lot of these animals that died and were buried in the glaciers and permafrost of these regions are now being exposed. So actually, really fascinating opportunities are coming out of gathering DNA from the frozen meat of animals that have been extinct for 10,000 years.”

A navigational lander is retrieved in a risky operation after his journey to the Challenger Deep. - Credit: Michael Dubno
A navigational lander is retrieved in a risky operation after his journey to the Challenger Deep. - Credit: Michael Dubno

Michael Dubno

His quips about bragging rights aside, Garriott’s thirst for adventure is born of this kind of scientific curiosity. His expeditions are invariably research-based, and it’s perhaps this more methodical approach to exploration that earned him the top seat at the Explorers Club table, a position he’s coveted during 10 years on its board. “My dad and most astronauts were members of the Explorers Club, and I always knew that I wanted to be a member,” he says. “But I wasn’t an explorer, so I had a hard time figuring out how to get in.”

For Garriott, a dugout canoe trip down the Amazon River in the ’80s was just enough. The adventure wouldn’t normally have met the club’s rigorous standards, but he documented it well, and one or two veteran explorers vouched for him. Plus, he says, these days the club is made up of three types of people—young, up-and-coming scientists, been-there-done-that explorer types and patrons—of which he falls into the final category. “I have a passion for being a part of expeditions, I have a passion for helping to build companies [to facilitate exploration, such as Deep Ocean Expeditions and Zero Gravity Corporation, which once helped physicist Stephen Hawking experience weightlessness during a parabolic flight], and I can afford to invest in these expeditions too,” he says. “My ability to go on serious expeditions went up phenomenally as soon as I became a member. So I’m deeply indebted to the Explorers Club.”

As president, Garriott intends to continue his predecessor Richard Wiese’s efforts to modernize the group with a focus on cutting-edge research. “We’re taking it from something of a gentleman’s club, at least it was in the 1980s—European male, safari-hat-wearing, elephant-riding,” he says, and into the realm of working scientists and explorers.

In 2022, Garriott plans to return to Antarctica in search of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s sunken Endurance. It won’t be the first attempt at locating the famed wreck—the Weddell Sea Expedition 2019 came painfully close—but the new president is confident that his team has the wherewithal and experience to succeed. Meanwhile, he’ll continue to develop and promote the scope of the Explorers Club 50, which he describes as “the 50 people changing the world that the world needs to know about.”

Garriott at home in New York. Behind him are a 17th-century Germanic suit of armor and other pieces from his collection of ancient artifacts. - Credit: Chris Buck
Garriott at home in New York. Behind him are a 17th-century Germanic suit of armor and other pieces from his collection of ancient artifacts. - Credit: Chris Buck

Chris Buck

“Richard really is the man for the job,” says Wiese, a highly accomplished explorer in his own right. “We are completely aligned on diversity and how we amplify science within the club. I used to joke that Richard was the next branch of human evolution—he is an extraordinarily smart guy. Anyone else in his position would have given up, but he willed himself to being a millionaire so he could go into space. The club is very lucky to have him and his talents at the helm.”

With Garriott it’s never long before the conversation returns to space—more specifically commercial travel, or the Billionaire Space Race. “I was talking with Elon [Musk, a friend and CEO of SpaceX] over Easter,” Garriott says, “and he was saying that we’re now in the new era of commercial leading the volume of activity in space,” as government programs have declined. “The next launch on SpaceX, called the Inspiration4, all four people are private commercial customers. We’re at a pivotal moment in the history of space.” Does this mean a second trip into space could be in the cards? That may depend on his partner, Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, a successful entrepreneur and CEO of Global Space Ventures, a venture-capital firm focused on private aerospace. “My wife hopes I won’t go back to space until the kids are old enough to well remember their father,” says America’s only second-generation astronaut. “But I’m confident that this new wave of vehicles is going to increase safety and decrease cost enough that hopefully we will be able to go as a family one day.”

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