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A Man On A Mission: The Unabridged Interview

In issue 226 of Game Informer, we talked with legendary game designer Richard Garriott about his upcoming documentary, Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars. Find out more about the documentary and Garriott's time in space in this unabridged version of the interview.

You spent a lot of time and money in pursuing your dream to be an astronaut. What was the main draw for you? Your father was an astronaut...
No question that was a significant factor. I think every kid has at least a brief moment in their youth where they think dinosaurs and space are the coolest things you can possibly imagine. But most kids grow up to realize that dinosaurs really aren't around anymore, and space, while it's obviously still around, is still a pretty darn improbably place to reach. But since I grew up with not only a father who's an astronaut but all my neighbors were astronauts, and everyone in my neighborhood was involved in putting astronauts in space, it didn't really seem that farfetched.

It was really one of the NASA doctors, who one time told me that, "Hey Richard, we see that your eyesight is failing, and therefore you are no longer eligible to be a NASA astronaut." I remember distinctly that was the point in my life where I said, "Well, who are you to be the gatekeeper of access to space?" Just being told I wasn't going to be allowed to go was enough to really set me on the course with a strong intention of going. I've been pursuing it with my personal time and energy as well as funds, long before I paid for that very expensive actual opportunity....

It also took a lot of training, correct?
Yeah. I trained just outside of Moscow for about a year before my flight.

What was that training like? Were there any surprises you weren't prepared for when you got to space?
Absolutely. The training we go through, even as private citizen fliers, is the same as any other astronaut or cosmonaut. So every person on board must know how to operate every piece of equipment on board, just to be able to operate independently and from a safety standpoint. And so the training is diverse, but not what I would call particularly hard. In other words, anyone with a reasonably good high school or college background can handle this training. For example, the life support systems are very similar to that required for scuba diving, so anybody who can get a scuba license can handle the life support. Similarly, anyone that can handle a ham radio license can handle the radio systems on board, etc. So none of it out of reach of a normal person, it's just a very diverse set of fields that need to be understood and have reasonable level of competency in to be able to operate successfully and safely in space.

But there were definitely still some, what I would call striking differences – there are some things you really just can't simulate on Earth. For example, some of the medical changes that happen in your body over time from sitting in zero gravity; the first three or four days you feel like you've got a bad head cold as the fluid kind of shifts in your body since gravity's not pulling it down towards your feet. And then there's functional aspects like the space toilet, which is a surprisingly tricky operation that you never can practice on Earth because gravity helps things reach the toilet on Earth in ways they don't in zero gravity [laughs].

But probably the biggest real difference between my expectations and the reality of flying was really just how impactful it would be to look back at the Earth. And I don't mean from just a looking back at the beautiful and fragile planet in which we live – it's actually something much more than that. When you look back at the Earth from space over an extended period like you get on an orbit, it's like a fire hose of information about the earth is pouring into your mind while you casually look out the window. And so your knowledge of everything from meteorology to tectonic plate movement to erosion by wind and water, go up immensely just by observation.

But the biggest epiphany for me came when I was looking out the window and saw a part of the Earth that I knew well, which was Houston, Austin, Dallas, and the Gulf Coast areas that as a college student I'd driven and hiked around on extensively. But because of this kind of dramatic observation of this area of the earth that I knew well, combined with the overview of the entire earth in the same visual scene, you suddenly go, "I now know the true scale of the earth by direct observation. From the part that I know well, I know that's a day's worth of driving or whatever it might be, and now I can see the entire earth in the same field of view." And at that moment I had a very physical reaction to the earth going from being this indefinitely large globe, to now being something absolutely finite and in fact small.

 A lot of journalists have referred to you as a space tourist, but it sounds like you were actually pretty busy.
Yes, in fact I am not a fan of the term space tourist. I think it is an incorrect description of my trip to space. Which by the way does not it's inappropriate for some people. For example, Charles Simonyi, who has more private time in space than any other person on earth – he's flown twice – he does not mind being called a space tourist, because his objective during his flight was to enjoy it and bring other people along on the ride and really show how other people could do it, but he had no commercial or scientific goals. I myself think it's much more appropriate to call myself either a private or commercial astronaut, in that I was absolutely devoted to finding a way to not only do research and commercial activity that would offset the high cost of entry, but specifically towards the eye of – you know, I've built these space companies, this is my company I'm flying with, we will only be able to fly more people when we can make this self-sustaining. And so I was working hard to find work to do that will really open the space frontier and figure out how we can bring the cost down, improve the training, and bring back things of great value. So even though my first flight was not profitable, I was doing truly professional work. In fact I would argue that the amount of both scientific and/or commercial work that I did on my flight was greater than most any government astronaut on the same period.

Can you describe what some of those projects were?
Absolutely. There's two that are of particular interest. The one that was of greatest interest to me personally was something called protein crystal growth. As it turns out, a way that many drugs are developed to combat a wide variety of diseases these days is to develop a drug that you can take that will bond with any protein that is involved in the manifestation of that disease. And so if you're going to develop a drug like that to take, one of the best methods of drug development is to study the structure of the protein that is involved in that disease so that you can design a chemical that will bond with it. And to do that, you need to know the structure of the protein. To learn the structure of a protein, one of the best methods is to grow a crystal of that protein, and one of the best places to grow a crystal of anything is in space, because in space there's no convention currents, crystals grow much larger and more readily. And so I've now flown the experiment myself, and in fact Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil flew it on his flight for me as well, so we've had two successful flights so far of this experiment to help determine protein structures for medical companies. And this is a business that I believe is worth many millions of dollars and will ultimately pay for lots of trips to space.

And the other one which is just kind of an interesting one: I turn out – just by chance – I was the very first person ever to fly into space who has had laser eye surgery. Because historically that has not been allowed by astronaut candidates – they've had to have naturally perfect 20/20 vision. Well, NASA was on the verge of approving it but they had no test case to demonstrate that it would in fact not be harmful. And the reason why there was some chance of it being harmful is in space this fluid shift that happens in your body also creates a dramatic increase in the intraocular pressure in your eyeball - it goes up somewhere between 20 and 50 percent. And with a 20 to 50 percent increase to the pressure inside your eye, it's reasonable to think that if you've had a thinned cornea through eye surgery that that might disrupt your clear vision, and that of course would be very bad for shuttle pilots navigating back to the earth, for example. And so since I had gotten to fly by the completely unique method of paying my own way, and I am the first person to have this particular procedure, NASA said, "Hey, Richard, can we study yours eyes? Because you're the first test case." And so I was involved in a very extensive, now published medical research program, which all came back very positively and successfully as anticipated, and now NASA astronaut candidates who have had laser eye surgery are allowed to be selected.

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