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Richard Garriott, Space Cowboy

"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" (83 minutes) will be available On Demand on Cox from Jan. 13-March 12, 2012 and on VUDU, Shaw Video on Demand and others starting Jan. 13. It opens the same day at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and other theatrical venues.

"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" begins by asking the question: "Why explore space?" By the end of this somewhat indulgent documentary you may ask, particularly considering these tough economic times, "Why spend $30 million to be the sixth private citizen to orbit the earth?" Is this the story of a quest begun in childhood or part of a publicity ploy?

Directed by Mike Woolf, "Man on a Mission" (which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2010 SxSW Film Festival) doesn't delve into the potential pitfalls of space tourism, but celebrates the eccentricity of Richard Garriott, an idiosyncratic Austin resident who made himself rich by tapping into the international love for medieval computer re-enactment fantasies. Woolf, along with the executive producer Brady Dial and director of photography Andrew Yates, are all based in Garriott's adopted hometown of Austin.

Back when black Apple Computer screens displayed letters in all caps and people used 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, Garriott created one of the first role-playing computer games, Akalabeth: World of Doom. He went on to develop more games, notably Ultima, and took on a persona: Lord British. Dressed as his alter-ego, the godfather of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) cut a more flamboyant figure than other high-tech celebrities such as Bill Gates, Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak or the current geek genius Mark Zuckerberg.

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Garriott carried his Lord British persona literally into his home, building a castle he called Britannia Manor outside of Austin. The home has an observatory and secret passages and hidden doors, resembling the medieval fantasy worlds of his video games.

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Garriott is the son of a professional artist and a NASA astronaut. His father, Owen, was on the Skylab 3 mission in 1973 and in the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1983. So it's no surprise that Richard grew up wanting to be a space explorer, too. Unfortunately, he was cursed with myopia that disqualified him as astronaut material. Even laser eye surgery -- so new at the time that Garriott traveled to Canada to have it done -- would not have remedied the situation. Garriott took his MMORPG money and invested it in space-travel related businesses like Space Adventures. He was determined to get into orbit.

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The documentary shows us that being a space tourist isn't a picnic and even if it were, the food isn't that good. Besides coming up with the money, space tourists also had to pass through physical and mental training, and because they were going through the Russian space program, learn Russian. While in space, Garriott did do some science experiments, though that doesn't make him a scientist like his father.

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According to a Time magazine article, Garriott missed being the first space tourist because he lost a fortune when the dot-coms went dot-gone. In 2008, when he did make it off-world, he was also developing a new computer game (Tabula Rasa). He invented Operation Immortality, a program that offered to ferry digital copies of customers' (mostly celebrities') to the International Space Station for permanent storage, primarily as a gimmick to promote the game. Garriott explained to Time magazine that he considered various pitches to get the attention of TV host Stephen Colbert, who happily took the bait ("3001: A Stephen Colbert Space DNA Odyssey").

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As the "Man on a Mission" credits roll, we see Garriott in what is most likely a paid speaking engagement that plays like a commercial. His Tabula Rasa (published by NCsoft) closed down in February 2009. The South Korea-based NCsoft terminated Garriott from its U.S. subsidiary and last year Garriott won his lawsuit against them to the tune of $28 million.

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Garriott recently married (to Laetitia de Cayeux) and now goes by Richard Garriott de Cayeux. You can see a photo online (Google+) of their wedding cake, but not of the bride. There's some debate online about whether he's put up his Britannia Manor II up for sale due to cash flow issues or in the name of domestic bliss. His Britannia Manor III remains unfinished.

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Britannia Manor has its own website and was used every two years from 1988-1994 for a full-contact Halloween role-playing adventure game that was free, and, with the exception of two people, staffed by volunteers. The parties were expensive, and may remind you of other experiments by technology pioneers. (See "We Live in Public.")

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Richard Garriott also has his own website where he describes himself as "a highly entertaining speaker" and provides contact information for bookings. Another website, called RichardinSpace.com, is devoted to his space-related endeavors. The last update on that website is 2008. Space Adventures offers experiences you can sign up for: zero gravity flights, suborbital spaceflights and orbital spaceflights. A lunar mission is also planned.

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Space may be the final frontier but do we want it populated with space cowboys? Science-fact and science fiction are full of cautionary tales about things that can go wrong, from the 1967 Apollo 1 disaster ("The Right Stuff"), to the aborted Apollo 13 mission, to the 1986 Space Challenger disaster. And in this post-9/11 world, the possibility of terrorists in space might not just be fuel for future James Bond movies.

In Woolf's documentary, one of Richard's acquaintances tells us that "Richard spends his money better than anybody." But by whose standards? The documentary glosses over the real concerns about commercial space travel, regulation and possible costs to governments that may become involved in rescue or emergency operations. Still, as a simple congratulatory record of one man's journey to fulfilling his dream, "Man on a Mission" can at times be inspirational.

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Jana J. Monji is a Los Angeles freelance writer for the arts who almost always would rather be dancing Argentine tango or East Coast swing than sitting down. She has written for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly and currently writes for the Pasadena Weekly and Examiner.com on theater, art, dance. To combat the Los Angeles ailment of road rage, she takes a hammer and torch to metal to make jewelry.

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