By the late 1990s, Richard Garriott had made a lot of money in the video game business. In 1979, 18-year-old Garriott created the game Akalabeth for Apple computers, and he sold it in Ziploc bags out of the back of the ComputerLand store where he was working. Akalabeth is considered the first published computer role-playing game.
Garriott went on to create the Ultima series of computer games under his own game company, Origin Systems. In September 1992, Garriott sold Origin to Electronic Arts for 30 million dollars, and that money gave Garriott an idea.
Garriott was born in Cambridge, England while his father, Owen, was on a sabbatical. Owen Garriott was an electrical engineer and a NASA astronaut who spent 60 days on board the Skylab space station in 1973, then spent 10 days on board Spacelab-1 in 1983 during a Space Shuttle mission.
Richard approached both NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency, currently known as Roscosmos, with the question: could he buy a seat on one of their rockets for a trip to the International Space Station, and of course, a seat back?
NASA's response was something like, "Get lost," while the Russian Space Agency's response was somewhat the same, but with one caveat: the Russians said that it would cost them millions of dollars to perform a study to determine how much to charge a potential "space tourist."
Garriott replied that he would determine that figure, and to do that, in 1998 he formed the company Space Adventures with Eric C. Anderson at its helm. Space Adventures determined that the amount the Russian Space Agency should charge was $20 million, and Garriott quickly ponied up that amount.
However, in the dot.com bust of the early 2000s, Garriott's fortune took a hit, and he was forced to drop out. Instead, his slot was taken by American investment manager Dennis Tito.
Tito might have made his money on stocks, but his background was firmly in the stars. He got his bachelor's degree in Astronautics and Aeronautics from New York University, and a Master of Science degree in Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
After training alongside other cosmonauts at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Tito flew on Soyuz Flight TM-32 in April 2001.
Space Adventures next client to fly was English/South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth. In 1995, Shuttleworth had founded Thawte Consulting, which specialized in digital certificates and Internet security. In December 1999, Thawte was acquired by VeriSign, and Shuttleworth earned a cool $575 million.
Prior to his flight onboard Soyuz Flight TM-34 on April 25, 2002, Shuttleworth underwent almost eight months of training and medical exams. Training included a one-week orientation program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, a zero-gravity flight, centrifuge training, and spacecraft communication, guidance and control system lessons at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.
Third to fly was Gregory Olsen. A terrible high school student, Olsen went on to earn a Ph.D. in materials science. Olsen founded EPITAXX, a fiberoptic detector manufacturer which was sold in 1990 for $12 million. He then founded Sensors Unlimited, which was sold to Finisar Corp. for $600 million in 2000.
Olsen completed over 900 hours of training at Star City, Russia and launched onboard Soyuz TMA-7 on October 1, 2005. While on board the ISS, Olsen participated in a research program prepared by the European Space Agency that studied the human body's response to the microgravity environment. Olsen also used the Amateur Radio on board of the ISS to chat with high school students in New Jersey and New York.
Fourth to fly was Anousheh Ansari. Born in Iran, Anousheh emigrated to the U.S. in 1984, and she received degrees in electrical engineering and computer science.
In 1991, she married Hamid Ansari, and along with his brother Amir Ansari, they co-founded Telecom Technologies, Inc. Coming in just as deregulation hit the U.S. telecommunications industry, the company was wildly successful.
On May 5, 2004, the 43rd anniversary of Alan Shepard's sub-orbital spaceflight, Ansari made a multi-million-dollar contribution to the X PRIZE Foundation, which was renamed the Ansari X PRIZE in honor of the donation.
The X Prize Foundation offered a US$ 10,000,000 prize for the first non-government organization that could launch a reusable human-crewed spacecraft into space twice within a two-week period. Modeled after early 20th-century aviation prizes, it aimed to spur development of low-cost spaceflight.
The prize was won on October 4, 2004, which was the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch, by the Tier One project, which was designed by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, using the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne.
Anousheh Ansari lifted off on Soyuz TMA-9 on September 18, 2006, and onboard the ISS, she conducted four experiments for the European Space Agency that included the consequences of space radiation on ISS crew members, and the different species of microbes that made the ISS their home.
Upon landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan, Ansari was handed red roses by a Russian official, and got a kiss from her husband Hamid.
Next to fly was Hungarian Charles Simonyi, and he didn't just fly once, he flew twice. Simonyi first became interested in computers when, as a high school student, he worked part-time as a night watchman at a computer lab in Budapest.
Getting his degree in Engineering Mathematics & Statistics from the University of California, Berkeley, Simonyi began work at Xeros PARC, which was developing one of the first personal computers.
Once Simonyi got his Ph.D. from Stanford, he was recruited by Microsoft Corporation, where he oversaw the development of the highly lucrative Word and Excel applications.
Simonyi launched on April 7, 2007, onboard Soyuz TMA-10, and returned from the International Space Station on April 21, 2007.
In March 2009, Simonyi returned to the ISS onboard Soyuz TMA-14 and returned to Earth on board Soyuz TMA-13. For both his missions, Simonyi's goals were to advance civilian spaceflight and to involve the world’s youth in the science of space travel.
Richard Finally Gets to Fly
On October 12, 2008, onboard Soyuz TMA-13, Richard Garriott finally got to fly in space. In a nod to his British birth, Garriott's flight suit included the British flag.
Upon his return to Kazakhstan, Garriott was met by his father Owen, but they weren't the only father/son duo on the steppes that day. Also, there was Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov who was there to greet his son Sergey Volkov, making Sergey and Richard the only two second-generation astronauts/cosmonauts.
Richard's Garriott's trip was beautifully captured in the documentary "Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" which is currently available for streaming on the Amazon Prime service. Owen Garriott died on April 15, 2019, at the age of 88.
On September 30, 2009, the last of Space Adventures "space tourists," Guy Laliberte, flew on board Soyuz TMA-16. Laliberte is the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, which currently has shows on five continents, and employs over 4,000 people. Laliberte dedicated his flight to raising awareness of water issues facing humankind.