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Documentary details Garriott's space adventure

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Mike Woolf, Director, Andrew Yates, Director of Photography, and Brady Dial, Executive Producer of 'Man on a Mission.'

Stereotypical wedding receptions feature an unknown band cranking out radio hits from the '70s, rubbery chicken, teenagers sneaking forbidden sips of grown-up drinks and an intoxicated uncle attempting to master the Electric Slide. People chat about their kids or recent vacations or how pretty the bride looked. Rarely does the conversation turn toward space travel. Of course, most wedding receptions don't have as a guest a private citizen who harbors ambitions of leaving the Earth's atmosphere.

Legendary Austin video game designer and producer Richard Garriott spent a lifetime dreaming of traveling to space. In January 2010, he was on the precipice of a grueling physical training regimen that would determine his fitness for the otherworldly venture.

Filmmakers Mike Woolf and Brady Dial independently approached Garriott at their mutual friends' wedding reception with a simple question: "Who is filming this thing?"

"It had never crossed my mind to even consider a documentary until they had mentioned it," Garriott says. "When they did mention it, it was the most obviously correct thing to do."

Garriott was due in San Antonio the following week for a centrifuge test run, the final hurdle that would determine whether he would be able to take his training to Space City in Russia. Undeterred by the lack of a budget or production schedule, the filmmaking team sprang into action the day after the wedding.

"He had me at 'centrifuge,'" Woolf says.

The team traveled to San Antonio to film the first scenes for what would become "Man On A Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars."

A Baltimore native and Boston University graduate, Woolf originally came to Austin in the mid-'90s to work for advertising agency GSD&M. It seemed fitting that the man (Woolf) who wrote the tag line "Wanna Get Away?" for Southwest Airlines and a producer (Dial) whose most recent credit was an IMAX film titled "Ride Around the World" were teaming up to make a movie about space travel.

On a personal level, Garriott wanted the film to be made as a document of his experience. But he also recognized the importance of detailing a ground-breaking transition in global space activity.

As the son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, a veteran of Skylab in the early '70s and the space shuttle in 1983, Richard Garriott would represent the completion of the first American father-son duo to travel to space. An early investor in technology designed to enable citizens to travel to space, Garriott believed that his journey would advance the idea that space travel could eventually be made more accessible to private citizens.

After enduring the challenges of the centrifuge run in Texas, Garriott and the film crew headed to Space City, outside Moscow, where they were given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Russian space program. As they learned about Russia's rich history in space travel, the filmmakers began to contextualize Garriott's place in the lineage of both Russian and American space exploration. Garriott's bold curiosity and lifelong desire to reach space guided the story, with the filmmakers following his lead.

"We talked about whether we would have a voiceover or not," Woolf says. "Pretty quickly it became apparent that this was going to be in Richard's words because it was so first-person. And he's a great storyteller, so why put our words on top of what he's already describing so perfectly. I felt like we were there to follow him around. The story's so good by itself, let's just tell it."

Though Garriott paid $30 million for his trip to space, he never tried to direct the narrative of the film or treat the filmmaking team as subjugates.

"We tried to hold back at first to let him set the boundaries, because it is his adventure," Dial says. "He's paid for it. He's let us come along for the ride, and as documentarians you don't want to influence your subject. You want to have a little bit of distance. But at the same time it's such an isolated, strange place, he wanted to have someone be there. He's a really warm, kind persona. He's very outgoing and very sharing."

The filmmakers entered the production with only a slight understanding of the details of the narrative arc. They knew the story began with Garriott's childhood dream of following his father into space and that the film would (hopefully) end with a safe landing. But outside those markers, they were making their event-based documentary on the fly.

Woolf and his team were allowed little scouting and had to follow protocol with regard to the actual rollout and launch of the Soyuz spacecraft that would send Garriott to space. The launch was not the type of thing one could ask to be repeated if the camera did not catch it.

"It was as run-and-gun a documentary as there will ever be," Woolf says. "It was the three of us in a foreign country just trying to find out what's going to happen next so we can set our cameras up there."

Once in space, footage from Garriott's personal camera details the astronauts conducting scientific tests but also having some fun with the lack of gravity, juggling and playing with their food. It's the type of joy one could imagine feeling in a gravity-free environment and the sort of footage the usually austere NASA does not generally promote.

But Garriott did not make the voyage to space to play. He took his role on the crew seriously and bristles at the term "space tourist,"

"I had a heavier scientific and commercial payload and schedule than most any non-professional astronaut that has flown," Garriott says. "I had nary a spare minute when I was on orbit because of the load that I took on because I not only wanted to fly and be an integral part of the crew, I wanted to discover and prove the concept of what kind of business can be done to pay for my future trips to space. So I was not there as a sightseer. I was there working. Working hard."

The space station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, so Garriott says he was able to see a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes. Beyond the beautiful view, Garriott says he was fascinated with the "firehose of information" being sent from Earth.

"You see how thin the atmosphere is. You see how pollution hangs over big cities," Garriott says. "You see how a forest fire fills an entire state or more with smog. You see the impact of humanity — how every fertile part of the Earth is fully occupied by either farms or towns, but so is everywhere else. All the mountain ranges and alpine areas have roads and dams, all the deserts are crisscrossed with roads and have people pumping groundwater up to grow farms. All the swampy areas in Louisiana or the Amazon have roads crisscrossing them and towns, tons of clear cutting and burning going on in the forested areas. The impact of humanity is just obvious all over the surface of the Earth."

The unique perspective from space led Garriott to more closely consider his impact on Earth and live a more environmentally conscious life. He says that eventually individuals, communities and countries will all have to strive toward having a "zero-net" impact on the environment.

The surreal footage from space and the grandeur of the launch in Russia are matched by the intimate power of Garriott's descent to Earth. The filmmakers were able to use incredible footage captured by Garriott on his handheld camera from inside Soyuz. When they first saw the images, Woolf and Dial were amazed.

"Holy cow, this is the most riveting footage we've ever seen," Woolf said of first seeing the footage.

Woolf and Dial, who made the film with help from Woolf's partners and staff at Beef & Pie Productions, admit they were so busy trying to capture each moment of his journey that it wasn't until after the filmmaking process that they were able to realize how life-changing the experience was for them, as well.

"I look at the film and feel like it's very interesting and hope it's inspiring to a lot of people, especially kids," Woolf says. "Because it shows someone who had his eyes on the prize and never let that dream go and made something happen that was absolutely impossible when he first started dreaming about it. That was just so cool."

Garriott says that space travel continues to make tremendous advances with regard to accessibility. In the not-so-distant future, he believes, the price could eventually move below $1 million. While that still sounds like a lot of money, Garriott says that people will be able to monetize the work they do in space, potentially covering the cost of the trip.

"I'm a person that says, 'Look, I want to go to the places that are very difficult to get to but how to get there is known, and I can identify those people whom I can form a business with so not only do I get to go but we can bring others along, we can share this experience with others.' \u2026 Once it's been done, that means the door has been opened. And once it's been cracked open we want to open the doors more fully for everyone."

Maybe in the second half of this century, talking about rocketing to space will be as common at weddings as the drunken Electric Slide.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" begins a one-week run at the Alamo South today at 7 p.m. Director Mike Woolf, producer Brady Dial and Garriott will be in attendance tonight for a Q&A after the film. This screening is technically sold out, but Woolf and Dial will participate in Q&As at the subsequent screenings. The documentary also screens on Feb. 1 at Alamo Village and Feb. 9 at Alamo Lake Creek.