When Richard Garriott blasts off into space on October 12, he will become the world's first second-generation astronaut, following in the spacewalking footsteps of his father, NASA pioneer Owen Garriott. Richard Garriott is headed to space as part of Space Adventures, Ltd., a Vienna, Va., company in which he has invested, and will enter orbit not as a tourist but rather as a civilian astronaut whose to-do list includes snapping nearly 500 pictures of Earth and participating in a series of experiments that will test spaceflight's impact on his eyes (his vision was corrected by laser surgery more than a decade ago), immune system and sleep patterns.
"My father's first flight into space was aboard Skylab [in 1973], the first time NASA had built a sustained space environment for Earth observations," Garriott told ScientificAmerican.com via a Skype call from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Republic of Kazakhstan, where he will hitch a ride with NASA astronaut Michael Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov aboard a Soyuz TMA spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). "I'm hoping to compare my observations of Earth with my father's, finding areas of negative human impact and climate change. But I'm also hoping to find success stories, such as places where forests have been regrown."
Whereas Owen Garriott—who joined NASA in 1965 and spent nearly 60 days on board Skylab (the U.S.'s first space station) and 10 days in the space shuttle's Spacelab 1 module in 1983—took a series of Earth photos using a conventional 35-millimeter film camera 35 years ago, his son is using 12-megapixel Nikon B3 to capture digital images while orbiting at a speed of 17,210 miles (27,700 kilometers) per hour at an altitude of 250 miles (400 kilometers). Over his 10-day mission, Richard Garriott expects to have two or three opportunities to photograph each of his target sites, which include several areas that have changed a lot since his father first saw them from space—Las Vegas, Mount Saint Helens (which erupted in 1980) and the Mississippi River delta (which has been hit by a series of devastating hurricanes in recent years).
Garriott will get plenty of help from a software program called Windows on Earth, which TERC (Technical Education Research Centers) in Cambridge, Mass., and the Association of Space Explorers* developed with a $1.5-million National Science Foundation grant it received in 2005 to present images of Earth from space via the Web. NASA's Landsat program provides much of the imagery the software uses, but TERC is planning to enhance these satellite images with ones Garriott takes during his mission. Windows on Earth uses software from GeoFusion, Inc., to draw digital maps of Earth as it is seen from the ISS and from WorldSat International, Inc., to stitch together these images and give them the proper color and definition. Boston's Museum of Science, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and St. Louis Science Center all use Windows on Earth to provide images for their various space exhibits.
"Astronauts say that, stepping away from Earth, you see it in a whole new way," says Dan Barstow, director of TERC's Center for Science Teaching and Learning, who hopes that Windows on Earth will provide students and Web users with photo-realistic images of the planet that will help improve their "Earth literacy". "We want people to think about the Earth as a complex, interdynamic system."
Garriott will arrange his workspace after he boards the ISS so that his computer (running the Windows on Earth software) is affixed using Velcro on the wall next to his observation window (15.7 inches, or 40 centimeters, in diameter) in the Russian service module, thereby providing him with detailed information about the ISS's position over Earth in real time to help him photograph his target sites.
All together, he has 500 targets to photograph during his mission. "The problem with photographing so many places from space is that things go by very quickly, so it's difficult to orient yourself," Garriott says. Windows on Earth should help Garriott with that aspect of his mission by informing him in real time exactly what location on Earth the ISS is passing over at any given time. "They've turned this into a quite sophisticated Earth observation tool."
Garriott's new images will later be used to enhance Windows on Earth's database of images. Barstow expects that, after some tweaks to the software, Windows on Earth will become a permanent fixture on the ISS to help orient astronauts whenever they observe the globe.
During his 10-day stay, Garriott will also participate in a number of science experiments. The first will study the impact of microgravity on Garriott's eyes, which more than a decade ago underwent photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) corrective laser surgery, typically performed to correct mild to moderate nearsightedness, farsightedness and/or astigmatism. Until recently NASA required its astronauts to have naturally perfect vision, one of the main reasons Garriott was not able to join the space agency's astronaut program. To date, no one with corrective eye surgery has flown outside Earth's atmosphere. (The space agency's concern has always been that the rise in inner eye pressure in space could impair or permanently damage an astronaut's vision.)
Garriott's second experiment will study the effects of spaceflight on the human immune system and validate monitoring tests for immune function in astronauts, whereas a third experiment will document sleep and wake patterns and sleep characteristics in space. Because relatively few people have flown in space, Garriott's test results will provide important information for NASA about how the human body reacts and adapts to a microgravity environment.
Garriott, who paid $30 million for the privilege of traveling to space, has been training for his mission for the past year—learning some Russian and trying to acclimate his body to flight and microgravity conditions so he can avoid getting sick during his trip to the ISS—but he has been preparing for this moment his whole life. Garriott, who was 12 years old when his father first blasted off into space, grew up with astronauts and NASA scientists as neighbors. "My whole worldview at the time was that everyone went to space," he says, adding that it was a major disappointment when he could not join the space agency's astronaut program. Next week, he will get to see firsthand what he's been missing.
* Correction (10/14/08) This article originally failed to identify the Association of Space Explorers as co-developer of the Windows on Earth software