April 08, 2013

MAN ON A MISSION Chronicles A Nerd's Journey To The Stars

"Everyone's advice has been, 'Wear a diaper, prepare to use it.' "
I have always always ALWAYS wanted to go to outer space.  Considering the current state of our space program, I guess it's a good thing that I never decided to become a NASA astronaut.  (Don't get me started on this topic.  If it was up to me, I would give NASA all of the dollars!)  My wife may want to explore the far corners of the globe, but for me space is the place.  If I had the means, there's virtually no price I wouldn't pay.

Price tags are less of an obstacle for Richard Garriott, an uber-geek who made a fortune as one of the biggest and earliest success stories in the world of computer games.  This is a guy who was creating text-based and even early graphic-based games on his Apple II, selling them in Ziploc bags and making hundreds of thousands of dollars as a high schooler.  He went on to create the wildly popular Ultima series (before my time) and invested his money with one ultimate goal: Richard Garriott wanted to go to space.  He wanted to go to space so badly that he got laser eye surgery years before they became common practice, because you can't wear glasses in orbit.  He invested in companies like Space Adventures and in commercial space efforts like the X Prize, planning to be the first in line when spaceliner tickets became available.  He actually lost out on the chance to be first when the dot-com bubble burst in the late nineties, but in 2008 he paid the hefty sum of $30 million to become a passenger on the Russian Soyuz shuttle for a 12 day trip to the International Space Station.

Garriott really is a nerd's nerd.  The computer games which founded his fortune were mostly medieval adventure games featuring a heroic knight named Lord British.  Garriott eventually came to inhabit that character, dressing in chain mail and multicolored tunics.  He learned metalwork and made himself a chain that he never removes featuring Lord British's insignia, a crudely drawn snake.  He even grew two very long, thin braids, similar to the Padawan braids from the Star Wars prequels.  And yes, they look ridiculous attached to a 47 year old man with grey, thinning hair.  He even lives in a damn castle in Austin called Britannia Manor.  The man has money to burn, but he burns it in fantastic ways.  (For example, he's got an old Sputnik satellite sitting on a shelf in his house.)  Man On A Mission is very self aware of its protagonist's eccentricities and it's great listening to interviews with his family as well as some of his peers/rivals, all of whom talk about Richard with a peculiar mix of awe and bemusement.  (His brother Robert half jokes that he's been trying to cut Richard's braids for years.  I say keep at it.)

While he's travelled to the depths of the ocean and the heart of the jungle, space was always Lord British's ultimate destination.  Richard was understandably inspired at a young age by his father Owen, a NASA astronaut who spent time on the Spacelab station back in the 1980s.  There are lots of great vintage clips of the elder Garriott doing educational videos for NASA and describing some of the experiments he conducted on the floating laboratory.  Owen even helps Richard to revisit one such experiment involving crystal growth in zero gravity.  It's a lovely bond between father and son, cementing Richard as America's first second-generation astronaut.

From a cinematic standpoint, Man On A Mission is nothing to write home about.  There's a fairly trumped up subplot centering on some fears as to the effectiveness of the Russian landing system after the last few passengers reported a turbulent re-entry.  That's not to suggest the danger isn't real, but you never once believe that this thing is gonna end with a lethal crash landing.  Richard spends most of a year living on a compound in Russia to prepare for his flight, learning complicated maneuvers and emergency procedures, as well as basic stuff - you know, like how to speak Russian.   You get the sense that a lot of his training was closed to the cameras, but it's cool to see them preparing for some of the contingencies you might not normally consider.  For example, upon return the cosmonauts land not in the ocean, but in the remote desert.  In fact, a water landing is pretty much considered a worst case scenario, forcing the three men to engage in a highly-coordinated ballet of sorts simply in order to get on water gear in the tight confines of the space craft.  The crew must learn basic wilderness survival techniques in case their ship lands far off course and the support crew is not able to reach them for a few days.  (It's totally great to see astronauts learning how to start fires and build shelter, the way you imagine they would do on some hostile alien planet.)  The crew also engages in a few interesting rituals, like laying flowers at the grave of legendary cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.  There's an appropriate amount of reverence for Russia's great history of space exploration, laid out in a fun little timeline demonstrating how the Soviets were the first to achieve almost every important milestone except the one that everyone remembers - getting to the moon.

I wish there had been a camera in the shuttle as the rocket blasts off into space, but alas we are denied that pleasure.  I'm sure it was some kind of engineering restriction, but it's a real shame as that's the part I most wanted to see.  Instead we spend the whole launch with the crew's family members watching from nearby bleachers.  It's emotional for them to be sure, but damn it would be cool to actually get a first-person perspective of what it's like to achieve escape velocity and exit the atmosphere.  We do get to see their re-entry (which goes off without a hitch) and while it's certainly exciting, it just made me all the more confused why they could get a camera in there on the way down but not on the way up.  You also get to see the design differences between the different sections of the ISS that were supplied by different countries, as well as some of the technology utilized, both old and new.  Richard and his father even have a touching conversation over ham radio, which they also did when Owen was the one in orbit.  While we glimpse the leisure time activities of Richard and his fellow crew members (including Russia's first second-generation cosmonaut, another threshold Russia crossed before America), it's a shame that there's nary a mention of Apogee Of Fear, the first science-fiction film actually shot in space.  (They do use some of the Apogee footage though.)  It's a pretty terrible little short, but it is chock full of geeky references and it's kind of marvelous in its awfulness.  Give it a quick look below.

The film ends with a rallying cry, a call to arms for all those champions of stellar exploration.  In a world where orbital photography is commonplace and anyone can have a conversation with an astronaut via Twitter (@Cmdr_Hadfield!) it's easy to get jaded on space travel.  It always reminds me of that line from Apollo 13, where NASA's PR flunky tells Marion Lovell that the crew's TV broadcast made going to the moon about as much fun as a trip to Pittsburgh.  It doesn't help that it no longer feels like we're stretching to break down barriers and cross new frontiers.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson has spoken eloquently in the past on the need for NASA as a tool for innovation and inspiration and I couldn't agree more.  These are incredible people doing incredible things, often times bringing our literal dreams to life.  Space will never stop being flat out amazing to me, and I'll continue to hope that some day I too will be able to journey out into the dark expanse and touch the stars.

Hopefully by then, the tickets won't be quite so expensive.

Title: Man On A Mission: Richard Garriott's Road To The Stars
Director: Mike Woolf
Starring: Richard Garriott, Owen Garriott, Mike Fincke
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

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