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In Astro-Dad's Footsteps: A Son's 'Mission' To Space

<strong>Family Tradition:</strong> Richard Garriott, the first second-generation American astronaut, funded his $30 million trip to the International Space Station from the fortune he built designing computer games.
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Family Tradition: Richard Garriott, the first second-generation American astronaut, funded his $30 million trip to the International Space Station from the fortune he built designing computer games.

Reaching for the heavens looks pretty easy in Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars. The title character didn't meet the eyesight requirements to train as a NASA astronaut. So he just paid $30 million to the Russian space program, and hopped a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Not everyone has $30 million, of course, and the story of how Garriott got the cash seems potentially interesting. But in director Mike Woolf's telling, it isn't; the documentary doesn't come to life until its last third, when Garriott finally reaches the space station.

And the amateur astronaut's back story ought to be more compelling: He's the first American to follow his father into space. (Garriott was even on the space station at the same time as Sergei Volkov, Russia's first second-generation cosmonaut.)

Moreover, he made his millions as the inventor of role-playing computer games, including the million-selling Ultima IV. Garriott so identifies with the latter that he calls himself Lord British, after the game's prime mover and his childhood nickname. (Garriott was born in England, but to American parents, and he grew up in the U.S.)

Garriott sometimes dresses as Lord British and lives in a mansion he dubbed "Britannia Manor." (It's in Texas, not on the old sod.) He also has a more flamboyant appearance than other astronauts — including his dad, Owen, who flew in the '70s and '80s. The younger Garriott travels into space sporting a goatee, an earring and two long strands of braided hair.

Yet Man on a Mission isn't framed as the tale of an eccentric who blazes his own path into the sky. Garriott is among the backers of the X Prize, which challenged private rocketeers to develop new spaceship designs, but when offered a place in the cosmonaut rotation, the $30 million man went the route previously taken by such space pioneers as former boy-bander Lance Bass. He followed the rules, too, doing a year's worth of training and even — Bozhe moi! — learning Russian. If there were any tensions, or doubts, Garriott has successfully kept them off screen.

That's why most of this documentary will interest only hard-core space buffs. It's all process, with precious little drama or personality.

While Garriott's trip may not have added much to the annals of human exploration or scientific research, Man on a Mission does offer a unique look at the station itself. As an outsider, a space tourist, Garriott is not afraid to show how awkward and kind of crummy the place is.

Not that he's complaining (except about the toilet). He retains a child-like enthusiasm for the whole experience, notably zero gravity, chatting with people on Earth, and gazing at the big blue marble he calls home. But where such NASA-sanctioned documentaries as In the Shadow of the Moon concentrate on the view out the window, this movie also includes near-impassable corridors stuffed with supplies.

Too bad the movie takes such a long time to get to the interesting stuff. Maybe the filmmakers figured that such an expensive trip must rate a feature. But Man on a Mission is actually an effective 30-minute short, struggling to slip the surly bonds of earthly ego.

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Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.