Looking at Earth
“When he started being called ‘Lord British,’ it was just after we’d come back from England,” remembers Helen Garriott of her son Richard. His brother Robert adds, “When Richard started dressing up as Lord British, it was really weird.” Photos of a young Richard in courtly garb—with crown and wide sleeves, approximating his alter ego in Ultima, the video game he designed in 1981—suggest that, indeed, he did look a bit weird.
Now, as he appears in Man on a Mission, Richard Garriott smiles, not quite so self-serious as before, and pleased to acknowledge his geeky younger self. He still wears the long braid he began growing as a teenager, as well as the crude snake pendant he cut out of metal. He’s adopted the snake, Richard explains, as “kind of my personal icon.” He made the chain too, Richard adds, and it has no clasp. “The only time I’ve ever had it off for any length of time,” he says, “is when I took it off purposefully to send in space with my father on a space lab mission.” While Richard makes this last point, the camera frames him so you can see a person above him, knees close to chest, floating in a capsule-like enclosure. Richard is in a training facility, preparing for his own journey into space.
In this, Richard is emulating his father, Owen Garriott, a NASA astronaut who spent time on Skylab (1973) and Spacelab-1 (1983). Mike Woolf’s film tracks Richard’s training as the sixth “space tourist,” an adventure for which he paid a reported $30 million in 2008. “For good or worse, Richard has always had more money than he knew what to do with,” observes Robert. “He has a different outlook on money than almost anyone I’ve ever met.”
The movie doesn’t interrogate that “different outlook,” but instead, lets Richard speak for himself. “Money, to me, is a means to an experience,” he says. He sees his interest in space travel as a natural outcome of a childhood spent in “the household of an astronaut.” As Richard puts it, “It doesn’t seem like such a pie in the sky, unusual thing. In my neighborhood, not only was my father an astronaut, but literally everybody who lived around us worked at NASA.” No matter that he discovered early that he was nearsighted and therefore “disqualified” by NASA. He had his eyesight corrected and began pursuing his dream through other means, that is, his money.
He came by this in his own way, that is, designing video role-playing games before existed, specifically, the Ultima series. His contributions are acknowledged here by Victor Pineiro, producer of Second Skin, who says Richard is “the godfather of virtual worlds,” and John Smedley, who had a hand in creating EverQuest and calls Richard “the father of the modern role-playing games.” The documentary skips over this history, the creative and corporate evolution of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG), in order to focus on the “experience” that follows, that is, Richard’s training with a crew of cosmonauts on the Soyuz TMA-13/TMA-12, preparing to spend several days on the International Space Station.
In leaving out this background, the film focuses on other kinds of role-playing, the kinds allowed when you’re wealthy and able to direct your self-image—to an extent, anyway. As Richard and his family lovingly describe his eccentricities, as his father beams for pre-launch photos alongside his son (the second second-generation space traveler, after Sergei Volkov), the film keeps focused on the plainly thrilling experience Garriott’s money affords him. He has a camera with him on the Soyuz and the Space Station, to document how he and other cosmonauts shave without water, eat out of cans, and keep themselves oriented in a weightless environment.
Around the edges of this experience, however, the film includes some discussion of the privatization of space travel—and by extension, of space as property. At this point, observes Garriott’s fellow space traveler, astronaut Mike Fincke, the general project of space exploration can’t “depend on the taxpayer,” and so, “Richard and his company, they’re opening the way.” It’s a “great new industry,” enthuses billionaire investor and Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
Like any other industry, its greatness is first a function of innovation and vision, and then, increasingly, a function of more mundane and immediate concerns, namely, money. And that means the term “great” takes on a range of implications. Certainly, this particular industry demands unusually large infusions of money. But as it is increasingly privatized, its structure is increasingly less unusual, more familiar. “If you ask almost any person who has returned from space what they enjoyed the most,” asserts Owen Garriott, “The answer will come back, ‘Looking out the window and looking at the earth.’ And so, we did take pictures, but they are more or less scattered or random.” He imagines that his son is “in a much better position to know exactly what to look for.”
As Owen speaks, the camera peeks out the Space Station window at earth. Richard explains his effort to take pictures that approximate the same views his father and his crewmates recorded, suggesting that the photos shown in the film are the result of multiple processes, 1973’s “random” choices and 2008’s more carefully selected shots. They show the earth looking awesome, changed in one generation of space flight, as Richard notes, “due to natural and human factors.” Man on a Mission doesn’t look into these factors, but it does raise questions—profound and disturbing—regarding their effects.