BY SUSAN LAHEY
Special Contributor to Silicon Hills News
Garriott is co-vice chairman of Space Adventures which sent him and half a dozen other space tourists up in a Russian craft—NASA will not permit commercial space flights. There’s also the X Prize Foundation which holds multimillion dollar competitions for various aspects of private space research and exploration; SpaceX which develops launch vehicles and spacecraft for NASA with an eye to commercial space travel; Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Catcher spacecraft can carry up to seven crew and cargo to the International Space Station and Bigelow Aerospace is developing space complexes for future space travelers.
Garriott himself, who has tracked mountain gorillas in Rwanda, floated down the Amazon, slept in a tent in the interior of the Antarctic, and been at the bottom of the Atlantic to see the Titanic, has on his bucket list “space diving”–the extra terrestrial version of sky diving–and living on Mars. He bought lunar landers that were left behind, making him the only private holder of real estate on the moon.
In his presentation, he explained how a program like XPrize, offering a billion dollar prizes to organizations that can create infrastructures needed to make Mars habitable, would spread the colonization investment over several different companies and make it financially feasible for humans to become an interplanetary species.
Garriott’s father, Owen Garriott, was an astronaut, as were the neighbors on either side of his house. His mother was an artist who helped Garriott devise complex science projects that made him something of a science fair celebrity. His father came home at night from NASA with technotoys that wouldn’t be introduced to the general market for 20 years—like the photo multiplier tube, a core segment of what is now referred to as night vision.
“So we would take this photo multiplier tube outside at night and follow the neighborhood cats,” Garriott said.
In Garriott’s world, going to space was normal. So when he was told at the age of 12 that his vision problems would keep him from being an astronaut, it was as if he was barred from the fraternity to which his father and all the family’s associates belonged. As it turned out, he was the first person to travel into space after having laser eye surgery and paved the way for other laser surgery patients to become astronauts.
When he was in high school Garriott was introduced to computers when his school bought a teletype computer that no one knew how to use. The school gave him permission to teach himself to use the computer in one hour a day, every school day, for four years. A fan of the book The Lord of the Rings and the game Dungeons and Dragons, Garriott created 28 video games on that computer.
By the time the Apple computer came out in the late 1970s, Garriott was already a veteran game designer. Right out of high school, he had a national distributor publish one of his games. By the time he got to the fourth version of his first game, Ultima 4, he was focused not only on the technology, but on the impact of it.
“As the author, you’re the hero. But most people do whatever they need to do to be powerful and defeat the bad guy waiting for them at the end, even if that’s steal, pillage, plunder. I thought, how can we hold a mirror up to them to inspire them to be more truly heroic. So I made it so the game watches your behavior. It sees whether you give money to the beggar or not. There was one character who was really easy to steal from and most people figured that out pretty easily and stole from her. But later you might need something from one of those characters. And you’d go up and ask for help and the character would say ‘I’d love to help the hero who is here to save us but you are a lying…stealing….”
Garriott remains a game designer—and an eccentric one at that. He wears a silver snake necklace he made when was 11 that is permanently attached to his neck. He has a lock of hair on the back of his head he’s been growing since the 1980s. He used to wear many rings until he married a year ago and his wife, a hedge fund manager, asked him to scale down to her wedding band for the time being. And he paints his toenails a different color every day. Saturday it was beige.
He collects automatons—toys or work of art that move. He has an Austin mansion that has sometimes been called a haunted house. And he’s a magician.
Last year, Garriott cofounded Portalarium, an Austin-based developer and publisher of games for social networks and mobile platforms. The company’s first game is Ultimate Collector Garage Sale.
But he has other passions now as well. One is the environment. He’d always seen himself as an environmentalist and excused his laxness with the usual excuses: it was too difficult to live truly green. It was too expensive.
Seeing the earth from space, however, he could detect the yellowish smoke over the Amazon and the places in Africa where clear cutting and burning was going on. Seeing the peacefulness of the Pacific and the turbulence of the Atlantic, the fissures from tectonic plate activity and the erosion as water poured into the sea, all gave him a sense of how small, actually, and fragile the earth is.
“Suddenly the earth was finite. It was something you could get your hands around.”
So he came home and revamped his lifestyle, adding photovoltaic panels to his home, reducing waste and trading in all his gas guzzling SUVs for more fuel efficient cars.
He’s also passionate about space.
He’s passionate about finding ways to fund his own future journeys, for one thing. On the recent trip he had created a software that warned astronauts when they were approaching spots where they were supposed to take photos. Previously astronauts had to watch out the window and try to visually line up the photo they’d gone up with with the scene below.
He also did work protein crystallization for ExtremoZyme, Inc., a biotechnology company he co-founded with his father. The proteins they used have important cellular functions and are associated with common human diseases. The weightless environment of space helps form superior crystals which researchers on earth to study to learn more about the molecular structure of these proteins for protein engineering and drug design.
But he’s also passionate about bringing other people the opportunity to share in the kinds of adventures he’s been able to experience.
“I’m an explorer,” he said, “but not an explorer like Sir Edmund Hillary who was the first man to climb Mt. Everest. His attitude was, ‘I’m going to climb this and I might make it or I might die but I have to try.’ I have no interest in dying.”
It used to be that one could only explore as Sir Edmund Hillary did or go on a Disney cruise. He wants to offer alternatives. Today, he said, if you want to go space, the bottom of the sea, or to the poles, his business is the place to seek out.
One of his most amazing adventures was visiting the interior of the Antarctic where the air and silence are so complete they seem to distort your understanding. Describing a place where the scouring wind had created what appeared to be a massive frozen wave he said: “How does our world have things like this and we never see them.”
He wants to see disappearing indigenous populations before they completely disappear. He wants to put a stick in lava.
“I have a passion for exploration,” he said, “I have a passion for understanding and I have a passion to create things for others to explore.”