Astronaut's Son Reboots Dad's Work in Orbit
Second-generation space explorer Richard Garriott arrives onboard the space station.
Credit: NASA TV

Richard Garriott's approach to the International Space Station (ISS) this morning may have seemed familiar to him, even though this was his first flight in space. That feeling could be attributed in part to the six months of training he underwent for the mission, but it might also have been what happened when he was twelve, or more appropriately, what his father did then.

Consider it generational d?j? vu.

Thirty-five years ago, seated in the right seat of a three man capsule, Owen Garriott docked with a space station. This morning, Richard Garriott did more or less the same thing. It wasn't the same spacecraft, nor the same space station, but the father's and son's missions share a lot in common.

Space runs in the family

Owen Garriott was selected to be one of NASA's first six scientist-astronauts when Richard was four years old.

"He's grown up in this program," shared the elder Garriott in an interview with "He's known about space since he was old enough to talk, almost."

Richard's path to space however, was not to be through NASA. Told that his eyesight would preclude his being eligible, he never applied for the astronaut corps. Instead, he made a name -- and fortune -- for himself developing computer games, including the very popular Ultima series and most recently, Tabula Rasa.

Still, growing up in Houston the son of an astronaut had a way of catching up with him.

"June Scobee, the wife of Challenger commander Dick Scobee, was actually my high school science teacher," explained Richard. "After the Challenger accident, which was intended to be the first Teacher in Space flight, the families of the Challenger astronauts got together and wanted to build a living educational memorial. Knowing I was very active in things like science fairs and already starting in the business of computer games, June came to me and I helped work on the designs that eventually became what are now the so far, 50 Challenger Center educational facilities that are now spread out around the world."

Then in the mid-1990s, Richard became involved with the X Prize and Space Adventures, aimed at kick-starting the commercial space travel market. He personally financed the Russian study that would open ISS flights to privately funded individuals with the intention of being the first. The dotcom bubble burst delayed, but did not cancel his plans. In Sept. 2007, Space Adventures announced that Richard would pay a reported $30 million to fly to the ISS in 2008.

Father and flight manager

From the start, Richard planned to dedicate his time in space to advancing science, and who better to turn to for guidance then his scientist-astronaut dad?

"I've been playing a substantial role for quite some time," said Owen. "I've been trying to help with his experimental program all the way through the flight."

Richard's first commercial research partner for the flight, ExtremoZyme, is a biotechnology company co-founded by his father. During his nine days on-board the station, Richard's primary experiment will be focused on protein crystal growth for the company, which is looking to apply the results to better structure-guided drug design.

During today's docking and throughout the mission, Owen has been and will be in Russia's mission control, the TsUP, where he's serving as Richard's science manager.

"That involves not only protein crystal growth ... but also a great deal associated with visual observations with the photography that can be done from space looking down at the ground, working with a variety of educational outreach programs such as the Challenger Center, and amateur radio operations," said Owen. "I have been involved in all of these activities for almost a year now and will continue working with Richard during the flight."

The view from space, 35 years later

"As it turns out, Skylab was one of the first times we had an extended human presence in space looking back at the Earth," Richard told of the United States' first space station, and the outpost on which his father lived for 59 days in 1973. "I thought it would be an interesting story to go back to the Skylab photo archive, identify scientifically interesting places on the Earth that may have changed -- through either natural processes or human intervention -- in those 35 years, and try to retake some fraction of those."

Working with The Nature Conservancy to locate potential targets, Richard was intrigued by one set of observations.

"The negative story sites are actually, unfortunately, relatively easy to find and whether that's the recession of glaciers or the expansion of urbanization or desertification or the clear cutting of places like the Amazon rainforest, those stories are very easy to find," said Richard. "But I think it is just as important to showcase the places where land management and/or human practices have actually either sustained or improved the situation."

To improve his chances of photographing the targets as they pass below, Richard will employ new software as a test for future astronauts and cosmonauts.

"The software is called Windows on Earth and it was actually developed by the Association of Space Explorers, and hypothetically, or the hope is, is that it will ultimately become a common tool for crew use in space. I'll be the first test subject for this piece of software," said Richard of the application that runs in a web browser.

"You can select which window you are at on the ISS and it will give you countdown timers to all the targets you've inputted into the system. So you can set that right by the window you are looking at and hopefully get a good chance to catch some of those targets photographically."

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