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A Voyage Beyond Even His Imagination

July 28, 2008

By Mark Carreau, Houston Chronicle

Jul. 28–AUSTIN — Richard Garriott’s Texas-size appetite for big adventure has unleashed some far-flung cravings.

There is the dive in a small Russian sub two miles below the murky North Atlantic to explore the shattered deck of the Titanic. Then there’s a weather-fouled expedition to the Antarctic in search of buried meteorites. And, of course, there’s some kick-in-the-pants sprints to the edge of space in Soviet-era fighter jets.

But in October, the wealthy 47-year-old Austin computer-game designer intends to expand the boundaries of his quest for adventure, taking a voyage to the international space station aboard a Russian spacecraft.

He paid $30 million for the 10-day flight, for which he has been undergoing training in Russia and the U.S. since January. He’ll become the world’s sixth self-financed space explorer, the first with strong Houston ties.

Garriott remains guarded about his net worth, steering conversations away from any estimate. But nearly 30 years ago he vaulted to the top of what is now the $50 billion-a-year video-gaming and new-entertainment industry, designing the games Akalabeth and Ultima under the nom de plume “Lord British.”

Elements of the good life came with his success, and one, his home, is a mansion called Britannia Manor in the hills northwest of downtown.

Garriott’s space station journey promises to satisfy one of his earliest yearnings for adventure, nurtured during a heady upbringing near NASA’s Johnson Space Center as the son of astronaut Owen Garriott.

“I grew up believing everyone would get to go to space,” he said, “because everyone I knew did go to space.”

Poor eyesight was problem One of NASA’s first scientist-astronauts, the elder Garriott was among three Americans who flew a world’s record 60-day mission to the Skylab space station in 1973. The family’s Nassau Bay neighbors included Joe Engle, an early shuttle commander and X-15 test pilot, and Robert “Hoot” Gibson, a shuttle commander and future chief astronaut.

But the younger Garriott’s ambition to become an astronaut was thwarted by a medical exam. NASA personnel assigned to care for astronauts’ families told him that his poor eyesight disqualified him.

“That was a very pivotal moment,” he said. “When they said I could not go with NASA, I was determined to find a way to encourage privatization (allowing space passengers) so I could go.

“I’ve never been one to take no for an answer very well.”

He went his own way, combining a talent for computing nurtured early on with an active imagination. He designed Ultima which became a long-running series. An early version of the game earned him $150,000 a few weeks after his 1979 graduation from Clear Creek High School.

“That was a substantial income.” he said. “It was a multiple of what my father was making as an astronaut for something that could be measured in hours of effort after school. Everyone in the family said, ‘Do another one.’ “

He did. After selling his Origin Systems publishing company 16 years ago, Garriott broke new ground in the industry by creating an online version of Ultima. The concept allowed thousands of people to join in a single game simultaneously, expanding revenues through monthly subscriptions.

In 1988, Garriott moved into Britannia Manor, which he shares with his companion, Kelly Miller, and her daughter, Brennan.

He designed the earth-toned, glass-and-stucco mansion with secret passages, a mock dungeon and an indoor spa that flows into an outdoor swimming pool. The 13-acre estate overlooks tree-covered hills and Lake Austin. A celestial observatory crowns the structure.

Much of the home is filled with collections of Space Age memorabilia, magic tricks and table-top mechanical gadgets called automatons.

On the surface, Garriott’s tastes and entrepreneurship seem worlds apart from the life of an astronaut, but he sees similar motivations.

“I’m highly motivated by the exploration of the real world, but I find the real world related to the virtual works I create as well,” he said. “My games are games of discovery.”

Invested in space travel Garriott never graduated from college. Lured to the University of Texas by Austin’s easy-going reputation, Garriott dropped out of the school during his junior year when he was forced to acknowledge his grades were suffering from the demands of his gaming business.

Garriott says he invested in the commercial space movement, while growing increasingly confident the world’s government-operated space agencies could use a healthy dose of private enterprise.

He helped to launch Space Adventures, Ltd., a Virginia-based company that struck an agreement with the Russians for the occasional launchings of multimillion-dollar-paying tourists to the space station aboard Soyuz capsules.

The three-person spacecraft lift off twice a year with Russian and American astronauts assigned to the orbital base. Sometimes, the third seat is available for a paying customer.

Hoped to be first customer In 2001, California financier Dennis Tito became the first of Space Adventure’s Soyuz customers. Garriott had hoped to fill the seat, following his 1998 descent on the Titanic in a Russian research submersible.

But, when the value of Internet-related stocks plummeted in 2000, some of his own investments fell as well. He no longer could afford a Soyuz trip.

“When the bubble burst, I decided it was time to hunker down and rebuild my empire,” he said. Garriott formed a new company with a business-savvy brother, Richard, then merged it with NCsoft, a South Korean gaming concern.

Tabula Rasa, his latest gaming creation, is opening new financial horizons.

“I’m spending the vast majority of my wealth to go to space, to be honest,” he said. Unfazed, Garriott has interrupted the construction of an even larger Austin mansion until he satisfies the yearning. “I’m a serial entrepreneur. I have total confidence that when I get back from space I’ll go do something else.”

mark.carreau@chron.com

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