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Richard Garriott
While best known for his many successful computer game projects, Richard Garriott has also helped open the door for space tourism. (credit: NCSoft)

Richard Garriott and the beginnings of space tourism

Richard Garriott lives in Austin, Texas, and is a producer at computer gaming company NCSoft. He has had many hit computer gaming titles going back to the dawn of the personal computer age in 1979, including his famed Ultima series. Less well known has been his quiet role as vice chairman of Space Adventures, which includes some notable firsts. The Space Review conducted an email interview with him after his first space PowerPoint presentation at the Metropolitan Breakfast Club in Austin.

The Space Review: How did you get to be vice chairman of Space Adventures?

Richard Garriott: I was one of Space Adventures’ first suborbital reservation holders, and quickly became their best client for terrestrial space training activities. I then realized one of the best ways to help ensure that I would get to fly was to invest in making it real. Since then I have become the plurality shareholder and vice-chairman, and remain one of the best clients as well.

TSR: Did you think you would have to fly a Soviet rocket into space when you designed Ultima III, which includes such a rocket as part of the game?

Garriott: No! But neither did I ever expect to fly with the US space program. I have always expected to have to go with private space vehicles. I am just very excited to see it all coming true!

TSR: Do you think you will be one of the first ten paying passengers into orbit?

Garriott: Hard to say. I’d like to be, but it all depends on who flies first. I have an “in” with many if not most groups, but not all! There are too many to keep a foot in each door.

TSR: Can you describe the steps leading up to your becoming the critical person to enable the first space tourism flight purchase?

Garriott: Yes, funny story! Or kind of sad from my perspective!

I have always expected to have to go with private space vehicles. I am just very excited to see it all coming true!

During the middle years of the X Prize, when the $10 million prize was not funded and none of the competitors had raised the tens of millions they needed to make their suborbital craft, it was looking bleak for suborbital space travel. In a chat with Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, we decide to look into orbital. So, on my behalf, Space Adventures contacted NASA and the RSA (Russian Space Agency) to see about the possibility of flying with them. NASA just said, “No.” But the Russian answer was more interesting. They said something like, “Well no! To even see what would be involved with that kind of mission would cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars just to see how we would do it, then to actually do it would be millions more!” So, the door was opened. At the time I had recently sold my game company Origin, and was feeling particularly wealthy, so I funded the study. The Russians came back with a flight cost of about $20 million. Sadly for me, this is right when the US stock market started to crash, and then fell farther with September 11. Along fell my net worth, taking me out of the potential market. But since I had paid for the door to be opened, Space Adventures went out to see if we could find someone else to fly instead. Thus Dennis Tito became the first!

TSR: Has Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, or Greg Olsen ever sent you a thank-you note?

Garriott: No, I don’t think they even know this story. [It was only recently published in The Daily Texan.]

TSR: Are you jealous?

Garriott: Yes. But, I do hope and assume I will go soon enough!

TSR: Who do you think will get to the Moon next, NASA or Space Adventures?

Garriott: NASA will put people on the Moon next. The costs are far in excess of suborbital and even orbital. Tourism can get us into space, but other industries will be required to generate the values necessary for lunar exploration. But tourism might piggyback and subsidize this like it does for a lot of ecotourism these days. A good example is the submarine trips aboard the Keldysh via Deep Ocean Expeditions.

TSR: Is Space Adventures a travel agency or a space line?

Garriott: Space Adventures is currently an agent, and we have millions of dollars in cash paid reservations for sub orbital flights. But with few or no suborbital space lines to book today, we are working to ensure they exist and that may mean SA invests in that eventuality.

Since I had paid for the door to be opened [by funding a study on space tourism options in Russia], Space Adventures went out to see if we could find someone else to fly instead. Thus Dennis Tito became the first!

TSR: In a June 15 talk in Austin, you cited a 1995 study saying that 10% of people would pay their entire annual income to visit space. Since there are seven million households in the world with $200,000/year income or $1 million in assets, does that make the market at least 700,000 people? Or are these people more cautious and we may only see 250–500/year at first like the Futron study?

Garriott: I think these studies are a good indicator of interest, but cannot directly be tied to expected sales. Long term, I think there are millions who want to and will fly in space. But I think starting with a few hundred a year will be a good start, and a great business!

TSR: At $200,000 per seat, isn’t the potential $140 billion? If three companies manage to get flying by 2008, won’t installed capacity be a small fraction of that?

Garriott: Yes, but that is more than enough to get the industry off the ground, let all the kinks get worked out, figure out fair pricing, refine the experience, and still be highly profitable. I expect we will see numerous builders fly suborbital craft and competition will drive cost down, safety up, and other services like rocket point-to-point via space! So, this is the beginning of something great!

TSR: Did you ever imagine that the US video game market would grow to $10 billion per year to rival the movie industry when you started as a lowly programmer?

Garriott: No idea! In fact, my family used to say “When this game industry windfall runs its course, you can go back to school and get a real job!”

TSR: As Howard Cosell might have asked, are you due for a win in your space investment strategy? If Space Adventures were Apple, what year would it be? 1980?

Garriott: I sure hope so. The signs are all good! I already feel we already won with the X Prize. So, now let’s all go!

TSR: Will you invite your father, NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, on one of your space flights? How did your father influence you to be a space enthusiast?

Garriott: Clearly my dad’s work made space travel seem like the obvious no-big-deal thing that we should all naturally do. It was only as I grew up that I realized this would not easily be the case. So I figured the only way we—I—would go was if it became successful in the private sector.

TSR: Would you support a colonization foundation for the Moon with a portion of your estate? What big ideas do you have about your legacy?

When I was young, I used to say that I would immediately take the opportunity to leave for deep space and never return. I still believe that.

Garriott: Sure, in theory. I’d have to be convinced that it would work. I’ve always thought of my legacy in terms of my contribution in computer games. There are others, like Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, who deserve the greater credit for making civilian space travel a reality. Still, I’m proud to have played my part so far. Mostly though, I must confess, I just want to go!

TSR: Will you emigrate to space?

Garriott: When I was young, I used to say that I would immediately take the opportunity to leave for deep space and never return. I still believe that. I’d want to be sure that my journey would be safe, and that it the journey was to achieve a worthy goal, but I would go in a heartbeat!