My Name, Writ, Across the Sky


This is a story about the most memorable time I watched the International Space Station fly overhead, but it’s also a story about the Soviet Union and the Nintendo Entertainment System.

So before I talk about standing in an empty field early one morning ten years ago today, I need to jump back about twenty years before that, too.

My friend Jason Smith introduced me to Ultima about three decades ago, initially on his household Commodore 64. We didn’t have a C64 at my house, but when Ultima IV came out for the Nintendo, I had to have it.

I’ve not played it in years, but it’s stuck in my head as a favorite of its class of role playing games, an innovative take on the medium less about fighting monsters than about character. The realm of the Ultima games was ruled by Lord British, a character who coexisted as both fictional and real, ruler of realms of Brittania in the Ultima games and nom de plum of the creator of those realms in real life.

For who grew up in the last 26 years or so, it’s worth noting that these were the waning days of the Cold War, even if the average person didn’t fully appreciate that yet. However frightening the specter of Russian interference may be today, it doesn’t hold a candle to the fear of a Soviet Union nuclear attack that loomed over life.

When I was growing up, the Space Race mentality of the ‘60s was a thing of the past, but space also was not defined by the international cooperation of today. Space was still very much an us-versus-them thing, the United States with its shuttles and the Soviet Union with its Soyuz and space stations.

Lord British, in real life, is a man by the name of Richard Garriott. His father is Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott. I’d heard of the former before I heard of the latter.

When Owen and I signed the contract with the University of Nebraska Press to write Homesteading Space together, I called my dad and told him I was writing a book with a Skylab astronaut. I called my friend Jason and told him I was writing a book with Lord British’s dad.

I came very close to not even trying to write that book because it seemed absurd. It’s not the sort of thing people like me got to do. Better and better-known writers got to do things like that. Not people like me.

Two significant Garriott milestones just passed their tenth anniversaries.

Ten years and a week ago, we received the first copies of Homesteading Space.

Ten years and ten days ago, Richard Garriott launched into space.

Richard visited the International Space Station as a paid spaceflight participant, purchasing a seat on a Russian spacecraft, accompanying a NASA and Russian crew to conduct a personal mission in space.

Earlier that year, Richard had noticed the close timing of those two events, and asked if Owen if he would like to fly something related to the book into space. The book wouldn’t be out, and really was kind of large to pack, so we decided to make photo prints of the cover.

It was a last-minute opportunity, so we needed to get them made quickly. I took a digital image of the file, and processed it through Target’s instant printing.

I’ve loved ever since being able to mark the anniversary of the day I bought a spaceflight payload at Target. Today, working with payload integration as my day job, it amuses me even more. I sit in meetings about all the PIPs and ICDs and EOMPs and ODARs and IDRDs needed to put something in space, and the one time I’ve had something flown of my own, I bought it at Target.

The three authors signed the prints and Owen got them to Richard.

Which brings us to ten years ago today.

It was early that morning when the International Space Station flew over Huntsville, but I wasn’t going to miss it. I stood in an empty field, as far from lights as I could easily get, and watched as the bright dot, carrying Richard Garriott and his Soyuz and my Target payload and my signature, crossed the sky.

It’s a moment I’ll spend my life being grateful for.

It’s a moment, amazing in its own right, made all the richer for the absurdity of it.

It’s made me wish I could go back in time and tell 15-year-old me about it.

“You know Lord British, right? Many years from now, the video game character you like is going to be in one of those Soyuz spaceships the Soviet Union uses.

“And with him he’s going to have a picture of a book given to him by your astronaut friend, his dad, and it’s going to have your handwritten name on it.

“And you’re going to see it fly overhead in space.”

I’m not sure what 15-year-old me would have thought.

Maybe he would have been quicker to jump on the opportunity to write that book when the time came, even if he wasn’t a better or better-known writer.

Either he would have believed it was absurd, that it was impossible. Or he would have had to believe that anything is possible.

That’s not a bad lesson to learn.

Buy Your Own Space Program


The new Liberty launch vehicle will use existing infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center, such as the Mobile Launcher shown here. (PRNewsFoto/ATK)

“These are the days of miracle and wonder.” — Paul Simon

It will be interesting to see which moment history records as the beginning of the era of commercial space.

Will it be Mike Melville making the first spaceflight on a commercial vehicle on Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne?

Dennis Tito becoming the first person to pay his own way to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz?

Ironically, there’s even a case to be made that the real turning point was Yang Liwei’s flight as the first Chinese taikonaut.

But, regardless, the net result is this. We live in a world in which the United Arab Emirates’ closest equivalent to a space agency is working with Bigelow Aerospace to establish a space program.  Essentially, the day is imminent when a nation could buy its own space program.

I listed Yang’s flight because to a limited extent, that was how he got into space. China bought access to the Russian space program, used and learned about their cosmonaut training facilities and derived their Shenzhou spacecraft from the technology in the Russian Soyuz. To be sure, China only bought the seeds of the space program. They got the concepts from Russia, but had to implement them themselves. And perhaps the most difficult piece of the puzzle, the launch vehicle, was homegrown.

The irony is that in the seven years since the first launch, China has put only six taikonauts in space. There was an official Chinese media report in 2005 that the second manned flight cost around $110 million, and that the project had cost $2.3 billion to date. Relatively cheap for the development of a manned program, to be sure.

But, during that same period, eight people bought their own way into space on the Russian Soyuz; at a cost of less than $400 million. China could have had a more robust space program at a much lower cost by investing a fraction of what it spent developing its own program outbidding space tourists for Soyuz seats. It would have meant less for national pride, but they could have outright bought a better space program.

The day is coming when a nation could have the best of both worlds, and buy its own national space program off the shelf. The ease of a turn-key purchase, with the national pride of not depending on another nation.

Bigelow, for those that don’t know, is in the space station business. They have flown hardware and demonstrated their technology. For enough money, a fraction of what space stations have historically cost, they could outright sell Dubai its own space station.

For the moment, the catch is that they would have no way up there. Potentially, Soyuz might provide a solution. The current production and flight schedule would not cover vehicles commercial use beyond the occasional seat to the International Space Station, but, theoretically, for enough money, Energia could build Soyuz for another customer. Of course, you then have a hybrid program — flying to the space station you control on vehicles that are still Russian-controlled.

Within a few years, however, that could change. Private corporations could be ready to build and sell launch vehicles that a nation could use to man its own space station. A fully operational modern space program, with zero development time or cost. A country could just write two or three checks, and have the equivalent of China’s space program, off-the-shelf and ready to go.

There are still several barriers to this. There are all sorts of international trade regulations that would come into play in selling rockets to other nations. One wouldn’t want to sell a Falcon 9 to a nation that’s going to decide not to launch astronauts into space in it but instead to stick a warhead on top of it and send it somewhere more terrestrial. And, of course, before the vehicles can be sold, they have to exist.

Another somewhat serious contender joined SpaceX’s Falcon rocket on the scene this week. I’d heard there was talk about this a year or so ago, but hadn’t heard anything since, and thought it might have fallen through, but ATK, responsible for the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, has announced that it is working with European company Astrium, manufacturer of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, to develop the Liberty rocket, essentially a commercial version of the Ares I replacing the NASA-developed liquid-fuel upper stage with an Astrium-developed Ariane-developed upper stage. Currently, the partnership is seeking support from NASA in developing the vehicle as part of the agency’s commercial crew capability program. I’ve not seen whether they would have any interest, as SpaceX is doing, in pursuing the vehicle on their own if NASA were not interested.

Either way, there’s a very real chance than in the next decade or two, there will be a lot more flags on crewed spacecraft in Earth orbit.

Painted right below corporate logos.