Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission – Movie Review

A genius at making money with computer games, space tourist Garriott will recoup little from this cartoon of a space adventure.

After making far too much money as a computer-game inventor, Richard Garriott fulfilled the dream of a lifetime. He was not only able to write about the fantasy, he was able to be part of it. Emulating his father, one of the original NASA astronauts who made space history several decades earlier, Garriott paid his $30 million (up from a bargain basement $20 million back in 2001) took his six months of training in Russia, blasted off and came back in one piece.

The best part of the story is that the “coming back in one piece” part of the junket is not a foregone conclusion. Although these trips have become pretty safe (“haven’t lost a tourist, yet”) the previous two reentries by the tried and true Soyuz spacecraft were, well, not completely under control.

As everybody knows who has watched TV in the last thirty years, space capsules get very hot upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The capsule is travelling downward at speeds far beyond the speed of sound and the air friction, shock waves and panic from those inside (just kidding about that last one…) heats up the skin of the craft hot enough to weld the doors closed on your BMW.

The only thing that keeps the astronauts from roasting like Thanksgiving turkeys is the heat shield on the bottom of the capsule. The reentry vehicle plows through the atmosphere bottom down and the specially designed bottom surface self-destructs, protecting the more vulnerable parts of the craft (such as the fleshy creatures within) from the heat.

The vehicle has special rockets that put it into just the right position, at just the right speed, to land it exactly where the recovery personnel are waiting, champaign in hand, along with the photographers. When the rockets have done their thing that section separates, leaving the re-entry capsule to make the rest of the trip on its own. If those rockets fail or if the reentry capsule does not separate from its rocket section, the capsule tumbles to the earth end over end in what is known euphemistically as a “ballistic” re-entry.

This subjects its occupants to centrifugal forces high enough to push one’s nose out the backside of one’s head. This is followed by a rough landing a hundred miles off course in Kazakhstan into the middle of the occasional forest fire when the red-hot capsule plows through a couple hundred yards of dry trees and brush.

$30 million or no, if this happens the occupants of the capsule may wish they had spent their money buying a nice peaceful island in the Bahamas instead of placing themselves in the nosecone of a rocket.

On October 12, 2008, Garriott took off aboard Soyuz TMA-13 to the International Space Station and was to return 12 days later aboard Soyuz TMA-12. TMA-10 and TMA-11 had both experienced these inconvenient “ballistic” re-entries and those aboard the TMA-13 voted unanimously they would pass on that experience for their reentry.

As it happened, the explosive bolts were the problem. The space walk and repair, conducted by the crew of the space station, solved the problem. Pass the martinis and stow the explosives, it’s party time.

That is the most exciting part of this entire film. The parts with Richard chumming with his ex-spaceman father Owen are about as interesting as a Legionnaires’ convention. Perhaps it has something to do with security, but the movie does not contain many fun details about the months of training and conditioning in Moscow the tourists must go through before they get to take the trip.

The footage includes that old standby, centrifuge training, where the rocket man is spun around in the hi-tech merry-go-round until he almost passes out. Richard, FYI, this is the same scene as the footage we saw on TV about thirty years ago—not exciting, at all. Then there was the weightlessness training in the swimming pool and the complaining about the food; pork chops all the time, or something like that. What, no bean sprouts? No Starbucks?

Let’s face it, this was a high tech operation and it would have been great to see some high tech. Such as how the rocket works, or how they calculated the re-entry path, or something. Granted, maybe there is still some security surrounding that, especially in bureaucracy-heavy Russia. Nonetheless, there should have been something!

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Directed by: Mike Woolf
Featuring: Sergey Brin, Mike Fincke and Renita Fincke
Release Date: January 13, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Country: USA
Language: English and Russian
Color: Color