Millionaire Follows Dad's Footsteps — Into Space

Richard Garriott, a famous video game developer, is paying millions of dollars for a ride on a Russian rocket to the International Space Station. He has wanted to go to space since he was a kid. His father and all of his neighbors were NASA astronauts. It's the first time the child of an American astronaut will blast off into space.

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OK, it's not unusual for a child to follow a parent's footsteps and land in the same career, but it's not so true when mom or dad is an astronaut. This weekend marks the first time that a child of an American astronaut is going to blast off into space, and he's paying his own way after making a fortune in the videogame industry. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Richard Garriott says, OK, probably every kid goes through a phase when they want to be an astronaut or fly to the moon. But he was growing up in Houston, home of NASA's Mission Control.

Mr. RICHARD GARRIOTT (Spaceflight Participant; Videogame Developer): You know, not only was my dad an astronaut, but both my right hand and left hand next-door neighbors were astronauts. One of my over-the-fence neighbors was an astronaut. And everyone around us was a NASA engineer in one form or another. And so it seemed very matter-of-fact that everyone was going to grow up and go to space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His astronaut dad is a scientist named Owen Garriott who worked onboard SkyLab in 1973 and Spacelab in 1983. Owen Garriott says back then NASA would set up a communications link so that the astronauts could talk with their families while whizzing around the planet.

Dr. OWEN GARRIOTT (Former NASA Astronaut): The kids were not nearly as impressed as the adults were. One of the kids, probably, oh, six or seven years old at the time, talked to these folks - I don't think this was one of my kids - but he said, say, mom, can I go get that pizza now? In the middle of the conversation. So they did not think of that as anything special. That was just like another telephone conversation with dad.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What did impress the kids was stuff like those new home computers. As a teenager, Richard Garriott spent hours huddled in his bedroom closet writing computer games. This mystified some of his father's astronaut buddies. Alan Bean is the fourth man to walk on the moon.

Captain ALAN BEAN (Former NASA Astronaut): Owen would say to me - I'd say what's going on to your family. He said, well, Richard spent three days in the closet and came out with his new videogame. I said, well, so what? He said, well the people play videogames now. And he's going to make it into a business. I didn't appreciate that. I'm no entrepreneur. I'm just a pilot kind of guy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, he started to realize that the kid was on to something. Richard Garriott says even back in high school, his games were making real money.

Mr. GARRIOTT: Even my very first game that I developed, that took me about six weeks of after-school time in high school. You know, that first game generated about $150,000 of personal revenue, which was a multiple of what my dad's income as astronaut was.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He went on to make millions with best-selling fantasy games like "Ultima" and "Tabula Rasa." He spent some of his money on adventure travel, like going down in submarines and exploring Antarctica. But something that had seemed mundane when he was a kid, space travel, seemed out of reach, until he met a guy named Eric Anderson who was trying to establish a private space travel company. That company, Space Adventures, eventually made a deal with the Russian space agency to sell trips to the space station. The first ticket reportedly went for $20 million, and Richard Garriott was supposed to get that seat. But, just then, the Internet stock market bubble burst and so did his fortune.

Mr. GARRIOTT: And so, the way I like to describe it is, you know, is like we sold my, quote, "my seat," unquote, to Dennis.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That would be Dennis Tito who became the world's first paying space traveler in 2001. Richard Garriott continued to write videogames as Space Adventures put four more clients into space. This Sunday, Richard Garriott will finally get his chance, for a price, $30 million. His father says, well, that's a huge chunk of money. But he's going to support his son because he remembers how he and his fellow astronauts used to feel decades ago.

Dr. GARRIOTT: We would have done whatever we could within reason, from a financial standpoint, everything that we owned, if we could just have this chance to fly in space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, Richard Garriott will be the first child of a NASA astronaut to get that chance. But he's not the first child of a space traveler to leave the planet. He'll blast off in a Russian capsule, and after it docks with the space station, he'll be able to shake hands with Sergei Volkov, the first child of a Russian cosmonaut to go up. Owen Garriott notes that later these two will be coming home together in the same spacecraft.

Dr. GARRIOTT: And in a way it's kind of fascinating. Naturally, people grow older, and the space program matures. And it's time to start thinking about the second generations.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This weekend he'll be at the launch site watching his son take off. After that he'll be at Russia's mission control where he can talk to his son as he orbits the Earth. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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