“I have always known space travel was dangerous”

Video game creator Richard Garriott recalls the moment that made him the world’s most easy-going traveler
“I have always known space travel was dangerous”

Illustration: Fabio Consoli

i grew up as the son of nasa astronaut Owen K. Garriott. My father traveled twice into space: first aboard Skylab 2 for 60 days in 1973, then aboard Spacelab-1 for 10 days in 1983. I have always known space travel was dangerous. I remember eavesdropping on the NASA briefings from the special “squawk box” installed in our house. We were advised not to worry about overhearing conversations concerning malfunctions. When my father was in space, there were many issues—some involving true danger—but all were solved by the experts on the ground. I learned as a young man to take such actively managed risks in stride.

As a private citizen, I made my own journey to space on October 12, 2008, becoming the first second-generation American astronaut. As with my father’s trips, I expected—and experienced—a variety of glitches that reshaped how I view traveling. The most visceral of them occurred on my return to Earth.

When we undocked from the space station—250 miles away from the ground—and started our plunge into the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere at 17,000 mph, our Soyuz TMA-12 craft was immediately engulfed in fiery plasma, creating temperatures hotter than the sun’s surface. Inside, the capsule remained quiet, smooth and temperate. In fact, other than knowing a blast furnace was six inches from me, it was surprisingly calm.

As we plunged deeper into the atmosphere, the parachutes deployed, the heat shield and outer window panes ejected, air pressure equalized and valves popped open. During the thrashing, a large metal canister became dislodged over my head and tumbled onto my shoulder between my helmet and the window. Before I could remove it, my seat raised into the landing position. The canister painfully smashed into my shoulder. I was in a dangerous position, and my suit visor was warped. I couldn’t turn my head. After the commander and I managed to remove the canister, my seat glided into the correct position.

Then, smoke poured in from under the control panel. As alarming as that might sound, I remembered in training that previous crews had witnessed the same issue, but it was never deemed serious. I brought it to the attention of my crewmates. They were unfazed. There wasn’t time to ponder the sudden smolder because Earth was fast approaching. We heard the beep that signified we were a half-second from landing. Before I realized it, we were back on Earth—a little bruised but safe and sound.

I fly often. I’m a Million Miler on American Airlines. I used to complain about the hassles of travel—the lines, delays and whatnot. But no more. After experiencing the rigors of re-entering this planet’s atmosphere, let me tell you, traveling across our world is a true delight.
Richard Garriott is the creator of the Ultima video game series and author of Explore/Create: My Life in Pursuit of New Frontiers, Hidden Worlds, and the Creative Spark. richardgarriott.com