The sun shines from behind clouds above a dark blue ocean (© Richard Garriott de Cayeux, using Canon EOS R / Canon RF24-105mm F4 IS USM)

Richard Garriott, the storyteller from space and sea

Hubert the Lion was haughty and vain, And especially proud of his elegant mane…

Seven miles beneath the sea, in the deepest place on earth, two men sit in a deep-sea submersible, surrounded by oxygen cylinders. It is an extraordinary vessel, custom-built using precision materials that have been sourced from all over the world, and designed to withstand the extreme pressure of their depth, which could pulverise a human form in seconds. The pair are enclosed in a space of just a metre and half, accessed through an opening so narrow they had to raise their arms above their heads to get in. Three tiny portholes let them see into the blackness of the Mariana Trench, where vents of liquid sulphur bubble and previously undiscovered creatures feast on the bait set by their fellow explorers from the ship miles above them.
“But conceit of this sort isn’t proper at all,
And Hubert the Lion was due for a fall.”
A reading of the 1959 children’s book, Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure isn’t quite what you’d expect to see in a multi-million-dollar submersible DSV Limiting Factor, but Richard Garriott de Cayeux doesn’t care much for the expectations of others. He has secured himself a place in history so many times, by accident or by design, that it’s becoming hard to keep track of his achievements. Considered a ‘founding father’ of the video game industry, his teens were spent coding and selling the first role-playing video games. In doing so, he invented the term massively multiplayer online role-playing game and became vastly successful. But this has almost become something of an ‘if you know, you know’ aspect of Richard’s career, as he’s since become famous for his real-life adventures.

The rear of the DSSV Pressure Drop, a white research ship with a crane-like launch and recovery system that holds a white deep-sea submersible, the DSV Limiting Factor. The sky beyond the ship is a bright blue with a few clouds in the sky. (© Richard Garriott de Cayeux, using Canon EOS R / Canon RF24-105mm F4 IS USM)
The DSSV Pressure Drop at dock, holding The DSV Limiting Factor in its launch and recovery system. The ship is large enough to comfortably accommodate 47 people and has on-board research facilities. (© Richard Garriott de Cayeux, using Canon EOS R / Canon RF24-105mm F4 IS USM)

According to Heather MacRae, CEO of the Ideas Foundation and a friend of Richard’s, “he introduces himself as a storyteller”. As incredulous as this seems, it’s about as close to an accurate description as you’ll ever get. You see, Richard is the only person to date who has been to space, both North and South Poles, and the Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the ocean. But Richard is not a passenger. The son of NASA astronaut, Owen Garriott and professional artist and naturalist, Helen Garriott, Richard is an active participant in the scientific aspects of all his expeditions, as well as documenting the experiences in photography and film. He then uses these and his own skills as a colourful raconteur to bring hidden worlds to life for others. In fact, he has layer after layer of purpose that together create skilful tales, threading the past, present and future together. And, in turn, these have different meanings for different people. Even his small recollections from events past are quite excellent…
  "Alan Bean [NASA astronaut] knew that I’d been wanting to go to space my whole life, so he wrote me this very nice note: ‘Hey, Richard, I’m thrilled for you because you’re getting a chance to go to space. One, because I know you wanted this your whole life, and as improbable as it was to pull it off, you pulled it off! So, congratulations, I’m sure you’ll have a great time.’
   He then followed up with, ‘It’s also really important that you and people like you are now going to have the chance to go travel in space. Your father and me, we were hired because we were military test pilots, or research scientists. But what we were not hired for is our ability to communicate.’”
And this is what makes him the perfect person to beam into a room of impressionable students, as he frequently does through the Ideas Foundation, and share his experiences and world view. Despite his wealth and incredible catalogue of travels and tales, he feels familiar and chats like a friend, with the occasional British-isms breaking through his American accent, a giveaway of English family roots. It’s with this same easy sociability and generosity of time that he decided to make every minute of his trip to the deep count, by making short videos for young people and their families and reading out cinquains (five-line poems) that had been written by youngsters in homage to the trip, as part of a competition with the National Association for Teaching of English. While down there, he also created a sub-aquatic gallery of work produced by students of the Canon Young People Programme, (appropriately on the subject of plastics in the ocean) and used the opportunity to showcase the work of Black artists represented by Disrupt Space. The submersible ended up being packed with the thoughts, ideas and creativity of the young. “We were in and out of the sub two or three times prior to the dive, so each time I would go in and take a little more stuff with me and figure out where is there another little pocket or place I can stash some stuff,” he laughs.

A ‘selfie’ of explorer Richard Garriott. He has a grey beard, blue eyes and an earring in his left-hand ear. He wears a red hat and scarf, and a blue jacket, of which only the shoulder is pictured. Behind him are the control panels of the submersible DSV Limiting Factor, with many round white lights. (© Richard Garriott de Cayeux, using Canon EOS R / Canon RF24-105mm F4 IS USM)
Subaquatic Selfie: Richard was given a short course in self-portraiture by Canon Ambassador Clive Booth and used his Canon EOS R to take this superb ‘selfie’ while in the Mariana Trench. (© Richard Garriott de Cayeux, using Canon EOS R / Canon RF24-105mm F4 IS USM)

At the time of writing, he is working his way through the huge number of items he took, signing each one and adding a commemorative stamp for the trip. “I’ve been back almost a week, but I’ve been here all day every day, unpacking all this material, finding out how to get things back to each and every one of the students that took the time to participate.” It’s a task that he estimates will take many, many hours, but he’s keenly aware of the indelible mark that words and actions have in the mindsets of young people. These are the future scientists, storytellers and changemakers who will one day have the responsibility of our planet in their hands. “It’s completely worth it when you can look back in only a few years and see the real impact you’ve had with these kids,” he says.
It was the power of inspiration that brought him to this point. Despite having an unusual childhood (“my dad had a job at NASA… “Hey Daddy, did you go to the moon today?” “No, not today, son.”), it was the seemingly simple things from early childhood have shaped the way he now lives. He cheerfully illustrates this with a somewhat gruesome story of how he and his mother would visit the woods near their home, following predatory cicada killer wasps and watching how they hatched eggs on the bodies of their prey. And while he openly admits that he was “a terrible student” at school, he conversely “rocked at science fair”, simply because when he found things interesting, he loved telling others about them. To all intents and purposes, he’s doing the same thing as an adult, using even greater and more powerful tools and locations to open the eyes of the world to issues of climate change and other ecological catastrophes.
At the same time, he works with the young to create that ‘killer cicada wasp’ moment for them, so that they can continue to push the message forward and explore their own ways to face the challenges of the future head on. “The good news across the globe is that we have a generation of children who understand this is an issue,” he says, but acknowledges that “our parents and our generation have created an enormous problem that we are passing down to our youngsters.” He believes, however, that there is good news on the horizon in the form of developing technologies that would have seemed like science fiction to previous generations. The biological libraries that his and many hundreds of other expeditions contribute to are opening up a new world of cutting-edge science. “Our technology is continuing to grow exponentially. And that means the problems are solvable in ever easier mechanisms,” Richard explains. “I’m the co-founder of something called the XPRIZE and Elon Musk has just put up a hundred-million-dollar purse for people who can start to remove carbon at gigaton scale. That’s the scale we really need to reverse or stop climate change.” So, while so much has been taken with one hand, the other offers some striking and exciting potential solutions. “We’re also passing down to them the seeds at least of some really powerful tools – much more powerful than we could’ve imagined.”

The photo is black apart from a circle in the centre, through which you can see blue and white, with some bubbles and a grey contraption which looks to be made from moulded metal, assembled with many different sizes of screws. (© Richard Garriott de Cayeux, using Canon EOS R / Canon RF24-105mm F4 IS USM)
A window on an underwater world: Richard and his pilot, Victor Vescovo, had three small windows though which to observe the ocean floor. (© Richard Garriott de Cayeux, using Canon EOS R / Canon RF24-105mm F4 IS USM)

He has plenty of stories about things that go wrong too… the DSV Limiting Factor had a close encounter with a seven-mile-long length of cable that had been cut loose and left on the sea floor by a previous expedition. “If we’d have got the cable tied up in the rotors or the thrusters – which we very easily could have – it could’ve been a substantial impediment to not just successfully completing the dive, but frankly, survival.” He talks of a sub getting stuck under the hull of the Titanic (“we actually bumped into the bottom of the Titanic and when we did, whoosh, a bunch of debris came down and pushed the submarine onto the sea floor.”), being stranded for weeks with little food and how he, his wife and their small children had to evacuate the North Pole because climate change meant the runway was melting and floating away (“we packed up the kids and got ourselves out of there before we couldn’t!”). But the story he tells his children is about a climbing expedition that went awry. He watched his friend descend over a cliff and took the split-second decision to do the same because it looked easy. It wasn’t easy and his friend turned out to be much stronger than he.

"I went over the edge and went down, down, down, down… and realised I don’t have the strength to make it. And I am now truly in trouble. If I fall from this height, I am literally dead. I’m not strong enough to go back up, I have no ability to speak to anybody to throw me a rope or anything. We’re isolated out here, dangerously. I just made a stupid mistake. I’m in a dangerous environment. I wasn’t thinking rationally, and I got myself in this really dangerous circumstance. The way I got out was really just good fortune… I came very close to killing myself. It’s the old adage ‘if your friend jumped off a cliff, would you?’ and the answer is, ‘I did, and it was a really bad idea.’”
It’s actually something of a moral tale – the one time he was truly in mortal danger was as a result of his own misjudged actions. It may seem that he has lived a life of repeated risk-taking, but Richard is the exemplar of calculation, making judgements that have a big payoff based on statistical fallibility. “There has never been a fatality in the history of submersibles. They sound dangerous and you’re going into incredibly extreme environments, but they’re designed very well and they’re well-calculated.” What he is advocating by this is what can be achieved by being the one willing to tell the tale. The need in our world for people who can and will make the leap into the unknown because it’s worth it, not just for themselves, but for others.
Inspiration is not a solo act. It’s a process. A chain reaction that lasts longer than Richard or anyone he meets and shares his stories with. The young people who receive their stamped and signed pictures and poetry from Richard will treasure them and tell the tale of how this paper has been to the deepest part of the ocean. It may change the way they look at the sea forever. It may even change the way they look at themselves. After all, if a kid who codes adventure stories can go on to conquer space and sea, then anything is possible.
Richard will be speaking to students across the UK in June 2021 as part of the Great Science Share.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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