Richard Garriott touches down at DICE

DICE 2011: Ultima creator and astronaut recounts his time in space and advocates the role of gamers in helping open up the privatization of the stars.

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Who was there: Not long after returning from space, noted Ultima creator Richard Garriott found himself jettisoned from NCsoft after the failure of his massively multiplayer online role-playing game Tabula Rasa. However, he then went on to form the social-gaming venture Portalarium. As part of the 2011 DICE Summit today, Garriott recounted his famous trip to space in a session titled "Achieving the Impossible - Creating Games and Gateways to Space!"

Private space pioneer Richard Garriott.
Private space pioneer Richard Garriott.

What they talked about: Garriott began his session by saying that creating games and going to space are actually interrelated, in that the passion to achieve both is very much the same. For him, building virtual worlds and building the industries that will lead to space exploration were both about opening up doors of possibility.

Garriott said the journeys that led him to space and led him into the field of game development were very much the same, as they were both inspired by his parents. His father, who was an engineer, nurtured his interest in technology, while his mother, an artist, helped him to tap into his creative side. The quintessential high-tech art he believes is computer games, and he had the perfect family backdrop to meld these two pursuits.

He said that he started writing games that were a lot like the Ultima series on a TeleType, and the single-player role-playing games that were the Ultima series represented the first era in gaming. This era culminated for him with Ultima Online, which took the experiences to the multiplayer realm. His new company, Portalarium, is an effort to tap into the third era of social gaming he said, proclaiming that each of these new eras has been accompanied by a swelling of the gamer population.

Switching the discussion to his time aboard the International Space Station in 2008, Garriott said that he has used the wealth generated from the gaming industry to go out and explore the actual world. These journeys have led him also to the Titanic's wreckage, Antarctica, and expeditions within the Amazon and Africa.

He said that growing up, the Holy Grail for him has always been space, but he learned early on that his poor eyesight would rule him ineligible to join the NASA program. However, this challenged him to go and invent a civilian space agency. His first investments toward the privatization of space flight were complete catastrophes, he said, but eventually he got in with a group of serial entrepreneurs who build companies designed to open up new frontiers.

Garriott then said that even once a company has been built to go to space, there is still the all-important medical issues that one must overcome. Though he was able to correct his eyesight, he had a liver condition that necessitated one-sixth of the organ being removed.

Medical issues thus addressed, Garriott then said he began training in earnest in Star City outside of Moscow, training to operate the Soyuz spacecraft. Every member of the crew has critical operations to perform, or things don't go well, he said. He was in the scientist seat, so he had a less difficult workload, but everyone has to back everyone else up. He also had to learn all the systems on board the International Space Station. The whole process took him about a year.

Garriott then described the ride into space, saying that it is quite different than TV leads us to believe. He said that it is almost perfectly smooth and silent during the ascent. Rather than being scary or threatening, he equated the liftoff to being vaulted by a confident ballet dancer.

After about eight and a half minutes, the engines cut off, and he said that he was able to get his first view of space and Earth. His first thoughts, he said, were, "Wow, we're not that high up." For two days, they lived on board the vehicle, and then slowly came up and docked on the space station.

Once aboard the space station, he said life is quite unlike that on Earth. There's no such thing as up or down, left or right, and novices are easy to identify because they frequently strip the walls of items that have been taped on. After getting settled in, he said that he was constantly aware of spectacular views, such as the sun rising or setting every 45 minutes. As for sleep, he said that it's important that astronauts tie themselves down, lest they drift toward the station's air ducts on account of the zero gravity.

Garriott said he attempted to play games in space. While the ISS does have Internet, it isn't very good and has extremely high latency. NASA was also worried that hackers could tap into the ISS's systems. However, they did try to play a game of Rock Band, and he said that he also placed a geocache in the station. After 12 days, he left the station.

He then brought the discussion to how his trip is relevant to gamers. According to Garriott, many of the frontrunners within the tech industry first became interested on account of the '60s space program. However, as it currently stands, going to space is incredibly expensive and dangerous, and the current efforts of these tech leaders is to open up space to the masses.

He then recounts a number of private space companies, including PayPal founder Elon Musk's Space X, Amazon.com creator Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and the efforts they have made to make consumer space travel a reality.

However, most interesting to Garriott is John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace, which he has just entered into a partnership with. Armadillo is currently working on a prototype rocket that allows for a vertical takeoff and a vertical landing. It will be a lot more affordable, he said, as Armadillo's current working prototype is able to take off from a vertical position, hover two miles in the air, and then vertically land within two centimeters of where it took off from. The only cost, he said, is the fuel.

Quote: "Talk to me later if you want to hear the bathroom story."--Richard Garriott, on some of the TMI details of his trip to the International Space Station.

Takeaway: While Garriott's session largely recounted his own experiences with space travel, the greater message was that the private space industry is operating in a fashion similar to the gaming industry. Single-player games got the ball rolling, and multiplayer efforts began to bring more players into the fold. With the rise of social gaming, nearly everyone is on board, and Garriott thinks this will also be the case for the future of space travel.

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