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Review: Man on a Mission

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Man on a Mission
Beef and Pie Productions, 2010
94 mins., not rated

Recently several of the private space travelers, or space tourists, who have visited the International Space Station have recounted their journeys. Both Greg Olsen and Anousheh Ansari have published books in recent months about their expeditions that served as the centerpiece of the broader story of their lives (see “Review: By Any Means Necessary” and “Review: My Dream of Stars”, The Space Review, January 4 and March 15, 2010). However, something as visually stimulating as spaceflight—from the drama of launch and reentry to the experience of weightless and looking down on the Earth from space—is perhaps better conveyed through film. Ansari’s trip to the station is included in the documentary Space Tourists (see “Review: ‘Space Tourists’ provides a rare glimpse of Kazakhstan”, The Space Review, February 1, 2010), although that film also covers other ground, like the Kazakhs who scavenge the rocket stages that fall to Earth after launching spacecraft to the ISS and elsewhere. A new documentary offers another private astronaut’s account of his mission to the ISS.

In Man on a Mission, the man is Richard Garriott and the mission is his expedition to the ISS in 2008. Garriott, as many readers are familiar, is the son of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott, and thus grew up immersed in spaceflight. Told his eyesight would keep him from following in his father’s footsteps at NASA, he devoted his energies to computer gaming, developing the Ultima series of games that made him millions, which he then spent on a variety of terrestrial adventures (as he explains in the film, he sees money not as an end but as a way to fund those experiences).

“This is really the first time the interiors of these vehicles have been filmed in such detail, especially during launch and reentry,” Garriott said of the Soyuz footage in the film.

Garriott did not lose sight of his early desire to fly in space himself. In the late 1990s, he and Space Adventures (the space tourism company in which Garriott is an investor) funded studies of how to fly commercial passengers—space tourists—on Soyuz missions to the ISS. Garriott himself planned to go on the first such flight, but a financial setback in the wake of the dot-com bust in 2000 meant he had to turn over that seat to Dennis Tito, who flew in 2001. (One wonders how different the controversy that erupted over plans to fly Tito, including strong opposition by NASA, would have been if instead it was Garriott, the son of a NASA astronaut and supported in his quest by his father, who was blazing that trail.) Garriott, having recovered from his financial setback, had his opportunity to go in 2008.

Much of the film covers the training process in Russia, including a sequence where Garriott and his two Soyuz TMA-13 crewmates, Michael Fincke and Yuri Lonchakov, struggled with a training exercise in the event of water landing of their Soyuz spacecraft. There’s also video that Garriott himself shot during his time on the ISS, describing life on the station and his activities there, from ham radio contacts (including a session with his father, who performed the first ham radio communications from space during an early shuttle mission) to photography and even art.

Richard Garriott talks about Man on a Mission and his trip to the ISS after a scrrening of the film Saturday at the Explorers Club. (credit: J. Foust)

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is rare footage he shot in the Soyuz spacecraft during its two-day transit to the ISS and during the reentry, all the way to landing, capturing the commotion inside the capsule as it hits the ground in Kazakhstan and falls on its side. In a discussion about the film after a screening Saturday at the Explorers Club in New York City, Garriott said he believed this is the greatest level of access the Russians have granted to filmmakers. “This is really the first time the interiors of these vehicles have been filmed in such detail, especially during launch and reentry,” he said.

The documentary, Garriott added, came about almost as an accident. Although he knew the filmmakers, an Austin, Texas, company called Beef and Pie Productions, doing a film didn’t come up until they talked at a friend’s wedding. “They were going like, ‘Richard, if you’re about to go off on this trip, we sure need to take a camera with you,’” he recalled. Fortunately they had that conversation, since some of these behind-the-scenes glimpses of the spaceflight experience is a highlight of Man on a Mission. The film, which made its world premiere in Austin at the South by Southwest film festival in March, has had limited screenings since then (including another one Saturday at a film festival in Oklahoma City, with Owen Garriott presenting). Hopefully, the film will get a wider release in the future to allow more people to get a unique look at what it’s like to prepare for, and fly, in space.