This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
In 1973, Owen Garriott made electrical engineering history as the first EE astronaut to travel into space, spending 60 days aboard Skylab, the U.S.–run space station. The stay set a new record for duration in space, and IEEE Spectrum commemorated the achievement with a photo of a spacewalking Garriott on the cover of its July 1974 issue. He went into orbit again in 1983, this time aboard the space shuttle Columbia , and he remained in the NASA astronaut corps until 1986. Between missions, he was based at Johnson Space Center, overseeing research in the physical sciences and advising on plans for what would become the International Space Station (ISS).
A quarter century after Garriott’s Skylab excursion, his son, computer-game designer Richard Garriott, took a 21st¿Äëcentury trajectory into space. The sixth self-paying tourist—or ”private astronaut,” as Richard prefers to be called—he took a Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS last October. Owen was on hand at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to watch his son’s liftoff and also greeted him upon his return 12 days later.
Richard and Owen are now the second family to have visited space, albeit in different decades. (Cosmonauts Alexander and Sergei Volkov hold the distinction of being the first father and son to go into orbit.) In March, veteran space journalist JAMES OBERG interviewed the Garriotts at Richard’s mansion, Britannia Manor, on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Owen, what advice did you give your son?
OWEN: Actually, I did not need to give Richard much information or guidance. He grew up in this kind of environment; he knows the situation. So my only advice was, don’t worry about feeling a little uncomfortable at the beginning of the flight. Almost everyone does. Just hang in there and it’ll be fine.
Q: Richard, how did you feel?
RICHARD: I feel very lucky that I was relatively free of motion sickness. But I did have a different, related problem. Starting 15 or 20 minutes after being in orbit, you begin to feel like you’re lying head down—in fact, it felt a lot like the tilt-table preparations we did. For 5 or 10 minutes, that’s not such a big deal. But when you do it for 5 or 10 hours, that gets pretty annoying. By day three or four, I was having substantial headaches from fluid shift and increased blood pressure in my head.
One of the other great pieces of advice [my dad] gave me was how to structure my flight. I devoted about a third of the time to looking out the window, because we knew that would be a very pleasurable activity. We planned another good chunk of time for ham radio. As you know, Dad took the first ham radio up [on the space shuttle Columbia ] 25 years ago, and so I had this interesting historical chance to reverse the call, so to speak.
The ham radio operations, by far, became the most entertaining activity I did in orbit. My other cosmonaut buddies now do this commonly, and everyone says they really appreciate the chance to talk with people who have this very low probability of contacting the station. But when they do reach somebody, they have made this very personal connection to someone in a very unusual circumstance. The joy the ground person gets out of that contact is infectious. A lot of them have gotten their whole school together and they’ve been trying every day for a week to pull it off, and the whole class—you can hear them clapping or cheering.