Neely Swanson

Man On A Mission: a dream of space travel, achieved, and filmed [MOVIE REVIEW]

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richard garriot

Richard Garriott as seen in MAN ON A MISSION, a film by Mike Woolf. A First Run Features release.

Richard Garriott has dreamed of space travel since the time his father Owen, one of the original six Scientist-Astronauts chosen by NASA, flew missions on Skylab in the early 70s and the Space Shuttle in 1983. Owen’s credentials were impeccable: a PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford where he was also an associate professor in the engineering department specializing in ionospheric physics. To say that Owen Garriott was a hard act to follow would be an understatement. When Richard became myopic as a child, his hopes to become an astronaut flew out the window and he turned his nearsightedness to other endeavors becoming one of the legends in interactive fantasy computer games and making millions.

As computer gaming made Richard rich beyond imagination, he began thinking of alternative ways to make it to space and invested in the company Space Adventure with the intention of becoming the first citizen in space. The tech bubble burst those aspirations in 1999 and he was forced to relinquish his “seat” to Dennis Tito who paid $20 million for the privilege. For Richard, this was just delayed gratification because by 2007 he had regained his stake and bought another ticket, this time for the price of $30 million, becoming the sixth space tourist.

“Man on a Mission” is the story of Garriott’s training in the Soviet Union in order to make that flight, the flight itself on a Soyuz space capsule to the International Space Station and his return to earth with a different crew. Director Mike Woolf gives us a bird’s eye view, and never has that metaphor been more apropos, of the preparation for the arduous journey as well as the journey itself. The photography is outstanding, yielding a unique perspective of the cramped inside of a space capsule and the claustrophobic confines of the space station where upwards of six astronauts live and conduct scientific experiments of diverse nature. Garriott himself conducted numerous experiments, some suggested by his father others identical to the ones his father conducted more than 25 years before. Certainly no one could miss the significance of Garriott being the first American to follow in the footsteps of his father into space (although his own are not particularly the giant ones for mankind variety); there had previously been a Russian cosmonaut following his cosmonaut father into space. If, by the way, you do miss it, Garriott mentions this significant detail repeatedly throughout the film.

We’ve become so accustomed to space travel, it’s easy to take it for granted, despite some of the catastrophic accidents in the past. But, in a telling shot of the families of astronaut Mike Finke, cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov and Garriott, you are made very aware of the dangers and fears that are felt at launch. Most interesting is Woolf’s use of historical footage from Owen Garriott’s original flights juxtaposed with footage of Richard during his flight. The camera recording the astronauts’ activities invites us into the capsule and the space station granting us unprecedented, almost voyeuristic access.

I wish I could say that I loved this beautifully filmed, artistically constructed and scientifically complete documentary more than I did, but unfortunately Richard Garriott is that geek you wanted to pound into the ground as a kid who grew up into the millionaire geek you still want to pound. He has the boyish wonder of a man with too much money and too little heart. Smugly and pretentiously, at the end of the film, Garriott declares, “Not only did the journey allow me to fulfill a long life’s dream for myself but I hope and believe that that same journey has flung the doors open wide for others to be able to fulfill their dream of being able to live and work beyond the confines of the earth.” With the exception of Sergei Brin, one of the founders of Google and another investor in Space Adventure, I think most of us are still trying to fulfill our dreams of being able to work within the confines of the earth.

Still, for all the reasons that are not Richard Garriott, go see the film because it is truly one of the best documentaries on space travel that we earthbound mortals will experience for some time to come.

Opening January 20, 2012 at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film.

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