Geeks in Space

Richard Garriott is a geek. He loves fantasy; he has two thin braids running down his back that, for pictures, he swings over onto his chest for maximum effect. Back in the 1980s, he developed a series of fantasy role-playing video games under the Ultima umbrella, making him, perhaps, the Henry Ford of gaming. He made a fortune, and he used it to build two houses in Austin, Texas, named after the home of the hero of his video games, Britannia Manor. (The one he lives in now, Britannia Manor Mark 2, is equipped with a set of secret passageways, artificial rain, underwater caves, an authentic 16th-century vampire-hunting kit, crossbows, armor, two skeletons, an observatory, and a lock of hair from a wooly mammoth.)

And, because Garriott is a geek, he has also used his millions to pursue his love of space. In 2000, he shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to be the very first self-funded tourist in space. But then the dot-com bubble burst, and he lost most of his money and had to sell his seat on the rocket. But Garriott loves space so much that, once he regained his financial footing, he decided to buy back that trip rather than resume construction on the still half-finished Britannia Manor Mark 3, the other casualty of the bust. This time, it would cost him $30 million—up from $20 million—and the training would take about a year out of his life, but it was space and, goddamn, it was worth it.

“It’s so important to see Earth from orbit,” he told me recently. “It’s a truly life-changing event.”

He says he has also noticed a pattern: All those other tech geeks thirsting for the same view. For instance, when Garriott finally went up, in October of last year, he was already Space Tourist No. 6. But Nos. 1 through 5 were all tech geeks, too. Space Tourist No. 1 was Dennis Tito, who bought Garriott’s first seat in 2001. Tito made his money by bringing mathematical analytics to money management. (He also had a bachelor’s in astronautics and aeronautics.) Tito was followed by Mark Shuttleworth, the Web-security millionaire; then came Greg Olsen, the optoelectronic millionaire; Anousheh Ansari, the telecom millionaire; and Charles Simonyi, the millionaire responsible for Microsoft (MSFT) Office. Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin has reserved a flight but hasn’t yet found the time to go, and tech venture capitalist Esther Dyson just plunked down $3 million to train for five grueling months—including a tundra survival mission, a machete and all—just to be Simonyi’s understudy for his second flight, in March 2009. (Guy Laliberté, the tech-savvy founder of Cirque du Soleil, is the next space tourist, scheduled to go up on Sept. 30.)

And these are just the travelers. There is also a shadow NASA out there, made up of tech geeks who are investing their second entrepreneurial wind into beating NASA, Boeing (BA), and Lockheed Martin (LMT) by building lighter, faster, cheaper, and, amazingly, reusable rockets that will supplant the space shuttle when it is retired in 2010. First, there is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon (AMZN), who in 2000 founded Blue Origin, a secretive company focused on making suborbital space tourism affordable and accessible. (First qualification for working there? “You must have a passion for space.”) There is also Armadillo Aerospace, founded by John Carmack, of DOOM and Quake fame. And there’s the Big Space Cheese himself, PayPal co-founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose space company, Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX), has become adept at scoring massive government contracts to build rockets that will make space deliveries of things like supplies and satellites for NASA and the Department of Defense. (Musk recently made his ultimate destination clear: Mars.)

So why do tech geeks love space? Though they may have the resources—a trip to space will now set you back some $45 million—this can’t be the full answer: You don’t see Donald Trump or P. Diddy signing up for an astro-mission. What makes it worth it for the tech geeks? Garriott, for one, has thought about this extensively. In part, he loves space because his father, Owen, was a NASA astronaut. But then there’s the social conditioning.

“There’s a documentary called Orphans of Apollo that’s stated this well,” he explained. “There’s a generation of us, who are the tech leaders of today, who were universally inspired to go into science and technology because of the NASA Lunar Space Program. And the reason the movie is called Orphans of Apollo is because, in many ways, we feel orphaned by the fact that the space industry has not done a good job of capitalizing on that momentum of what many of us believed were the first steps into space, carrying the mission of human space flight farther and farther into deep space.”

“The same kids who grew up wanting to be computer engineers are the same kids who grew up watching Star Trek, OK?” says Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures, the Vienna, Va.-based company that facilitates space travel for civilians. (Garriott is on the board of Space Adventures, and Dyson and Brin were early investors.)

“Technology entrepreneurs are the ones with the technical curiosity, the desire to do new things and explore new territory,” says Dyson. “And this is the ultimate new territory. There was a belief once, too, that America was something new and unnecessary.” Dyson believes we will eventually be colonizing other planets. Like Garriott, she also has space in her blood. In the late ’50s, her father, physicist Freeman Dyson, worked on using nuclear pulse propulsion to vault rockets into space. Esther was 7 at the time, and she recalls thinking that, naturally, one day, she would get to travel in one.

Now, these techies-made-good finally have a way to get to space. If they have the means, they come to Anderson. “Entrepreneurs take calculated risks,” Anderson says. “They’re willing to spend their life and time and money doing things that they know might fail.” And he’s willing to help them try for a slice off the tophis is a private company, and he would not reveal the terms of the contracts—though most of money goes to the Russians, who do all the heavy lifting. (Currently, there are no space-tourism flights leaving from American soil, and, according to a NASA spokesman, there won’t be for some time.)

The Russians, on the other hand, have been all too happy to oblige. Once the vanguard of space exploration, they suffered their own version of Garriott’s bubble bust. In 1991, the Soviet state fell and with it went the massive state subsidies for their space program. In 2000, Garriott and Anderson approached the Russians to see if they wanted to profit from this decaying part of their infrastructure, too. After the obligatory pooh-poohing, the Russians agreed to sell one seat on the three-seat Soyuz rockets they send up to the International Space Station. (NASA also buys seats on the Russian rockets, for $51 million per seat, which is still cheaper than building their own or sending up the space shuttle, which also happens to have a worse safety record than the Russian-made Soyuz.)

Space Adventures forks over most of the hefty fee to the Russians, who take the Space Tourist up to the International Space Station for about a fortnight. (The tourists themselves insist on being called “Space Explorers.”) Before they go, however, each space tourist must train for five months (900 hours) in the isolation of Star City, a secret hamlet just outside of Moscow that only recently started appearing on maps. There, working alongside Russian cosmonauts and some American astronauts, they work to attain “user level” proficiency in all things rocket: communication, emergency, life-support, electronics, and rocket-propulsion systems. It is all in Russian. (Dyson speaks the language; Garriott had a translator.) They undergo turns in the centrifuge and are subjected to endoscopies and colonoscopies. They are sent on zero-gravity “parabola” flights, which are fun with a caveat. (“The Americans try not to make you sick,” says Dyson. “The Russians try to make you sick.”) There’s survival training in the wilderness, including a bout in a tiny space capsule stranded at sea in which you have less than 90 minutes and very limited space to change out of your spacesuit. Garriott says he emerged black and blue, having failed on his first attempt: The capsule heated up so much that his core body temperature became dangerously high.

For the people who weren’t sufficiently athletic or eagle-eyed to become astronauts in the first place, completing this training is no easy feat. Nor is space a cakewalk. Once in orbit, blood becomes more concentrated and pools in your head; muscles atrophy and bones lose calcium. Back on earth, cosmonauts have to be lifted out of the landing capsule, essentially paralyzed for days.

“It’s no joy ride,” says Dyson, who is still waiting for the price to come down before she uses her successfully completed training in space. “It smells. It’s noisy. It’s the same people every day. The food gets repetitive. It’s lonely.”

But for the tech geeks, it is part of the fun.

“Now that I have been to space, and I have survived the second market crash, I hope to restart Britannia Manor Mark 3!” Garriott wrote in a recent e-mail. “Plus, of course, I plan to get back to space ASAP!”

Geeks in Space [The Big Money]

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