What it's like to travel to space, from a tourist who spent $30 million to live there for 12 days

Richard Garriott floating in zero gravity. 
Photo courtesy Richard Garriott

Elon Musk's SpaceX has had a lot of attention recently for announcing that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be its first customer for a private space flight around the moon.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin reportedly plans to start selling $200,000 to $300,000 tickets in 2019 to send tourists on 11-minute suborbital space flights. And Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has sold 650 tickets to space (at about $250,000 a pop) with its first "more than tantalizingly close," according to Branson.

But gaming titan Richard Garriott has already been to space as a tourist. He lived there for 12 days in 2008, and it cost him $30 million.

Garriott co-founded Space Adventures, the only private space company to send tourists to space so far. His primary motivation in starting the business was so he himself could go to space.

Space Adventures is a sort of space travel agency — it matches people with the resources to go to space with Russian space program rockets that have available seats — while SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic plan to send tourists using their own reusable rockets. When it comes to getting private individuals into space, Garriott beat the giants to the punch.

Here, Garriott tells CNBC Make It what it was like.

The 'overview effect'

Garriott was the sixth paying space tourist ever. (The first were also Space Adventures clients. A Japanese journalist went before any of them.) He traveled to the International Space Station via the Russian government-owned Soyuz spacecraft, which had an available seat. (NASA declined Space Adventure's request to transport private citizens.)

When traveling in space, Garriott tells CNBC Make It, there are life-changing emotional highs.

"Unquestionably, there is something that I had never heard of until after my flight called the 'overview effect,'" Garriott says.

The "overview effect" is a phenomenon often experienced by astronauts; it's a shift in perspective, a sensation of complete oneness that comes with being able to take in the whole planet in a single glimpse.

When you gaze from space towards Earth, you see weather patterns because you are above the clouds; you see changes in the Earth's geography.

The sun and Earth out the window of the International Space Station. Photograph taken by Richard Garriott.
Photo courtesy Richard Garriott

"When you pass over deserts, they are usually not covered in clouds, and you notice how the wind creates shapes that are only perceivable from space," Garriott, now 57, says.

You see the man-made changes, too.

"When you cross over anything with forests in it, you see how much clear cutting [there is] in the Amazon — burning down so much of the forest. You see the same thing in Africa," says Garriott.

"You see how every desert on Earth is covered now with people pumping up fossil water from deep below and growing crops until they run out of fossil water. And then they have to go farther away and further into the desert in order to get deep down fossil water to provide for towns.

"And you look at that and you go, 'That's not sustainable!' And you look at how every river has been dammed up. Every mountain range has roads through the passes, every forest including the Amazon [jungle] now has roads throughout it for logging and timber and farms growing up through it," says Garriott.

"The impact of humanity. The footprint of humanity is everywhere across the face of the earth," he says. "There is really virtually no wilderness left that you can see from the orbit of the Space Station." (Garriott supports a variety of initiatives to support the planet, he says. For example, he was part of Austin's One Green Step with its goal of reaching zero waste by 2040.)

Here is mine from 2008.

And there's a physical component to the overview effect too.

"Suddenly, I had this very strong physical response," he says. "The best way to describe it is like in a horror movie — where you will see an actor in the hallway and they will dolly the camera backwards but zoom in the lens. So the actor stays the same size but it appears the hallway collapses around him.

"That's what it felt like looking out the window at the Earth," he says.

"My sense of the reality of the scale of the Earth collapsed and suddenly I now understand the Earth in a way that I never could have before. And that has stayed with me and will forever, I am sure."

Blastoff day: The rocket is a 'living, breathing monster'

On the October day Garriott lifted off for space (from Baikonur, Kazakhstan), he woke "long before dawn" and put on the space suit he'd tried on many times before, "but this time it is for real," says Garriott.

He remembers the rocket well — though an inanimate object, it had an intense kinetic energy.

"You walk up to a fully fueled rocket ... standing erect on a launch pad," says Garriott. The rocket is full of cryogenic fuels, which require being stored at extremely low temperatures. "There is frost and condensation streaming down the sides of it. It's creaking and groaning and popping and valves are clattering open and shut and ... you touch this behemoth and it's basically alive – it's this living, breathing monster," he says.

To board the rocket, Garriott rode a "little tiny elevator" to the top where the passenger capsule is located. He was the first to enter.

"I go into this dark, cold capsule. I am the one that powers it on, brings the control module alive, power up all the computers, power up all the life support, basically prepare it for the other crew mates to join me. Then the flight engineer comes in and the commander comes in and we configure the vehicle for launch," says Garriott.

The Russian Soyuz being transported for launch day. 
Photo courtesy Richard Garriott

In the United States, the tradition is to count down backwards to signal it is time to launch.

"You know, the 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5… — well in Russia, they don't do that," says Garriott. "You are just going through a check list and you get down to the point in the check list where there is a Russian word 'pusk,' which basically means, 'start.'"

At that moment, the rocket lifted off. "Interestingly, with a liquid fueled rocket, there is almost no sound and no vibration," he says. "It's not like it takes off like a drag racer. It actually takes time to build up that thrust. ... The initial movement is almost imperceptible."

What you do feel, says Garriott, is the increasing drag of gravitational force on your body (measured in units of G).

"You sort of sink deeper and deeper and deeper into your seat, and the increase in pressure gets stronger and stronger over a few minutes until you get to about 4.5, 5 Gs, and then you stay at that pressure and you accelerate from zero miles an hour, sitting still on the ground, to traveling over 17,000 miles an hour in a period of only 8.5 minutes when the engine is cut off and now you are floating free in space," says Garriott.

"Once that thing lights up, you get to orbit in a hurry," he says. "And then you immediately are free-floating in space looking back at the Earth."

The Russian Soyuz connected with the International Space Station where it orbits at roughly 250 miles above the Earth's surface, explains Garriott. (Space is considered to start 100 kilometers, or roughly 62 miles up above the Earth's surface. For some perspective, the moon is almost 1,000 times further away from the Earth than the International Space Station.)

Logistical challenges: Sleeping and using the loo in space

Visiting space requires forgoing many of the comforts of home. For example, in the absence of gravity, you need to sleep tied to a fixed object. And when Garriott stayed at the International Space Station, it had three "phone booth-sized places to sleep" — and six passengers.

"They basically give you a little bedroll kind of sleeping bag-y thing and say, 'Go find yourself a place to camp.'" Garriott slept in what's known as European Space Agency Columbus module, a school bus-sized module that at the time was the station's most modern and therefore quietest area. "The older parts of the ISS are quite noisy," he says.

Generally, about half of astronauts have an easy time sleeping while the other half struggle, he says. Garriott struggled.

Richard Garriott (R) aboard the International Space Station. 
Photo courtesy Richard Garriott

Then there was the toilet.

"There are actually whole books written about how to go to the bathroom in space, but they all lie. ...[M]ost professional astronauts feel the need to sanitize [the experience] for public consumption," Garriott says.

The loo on the space station is a "phone booth-sized space," says Garriott, and is "basically a beer keg bolted to the floor. He describes it as "a vacuum cleaner that has two ways to be attached to various [bodily] apparatus."

Urinating is simple. One attachment is a hose "for liquid waste disposal, which works just fine," says Garriott.

"The part that is not as advertised is the solid waste disposal," he says.

Garriott says you have to straddle a hole the size of a Coke can, and with the lack of gravity things can get messy. He needed rubber gloves and baby wipes, he says.

"When you are training for space flight, you use all the real apparatus except the toilet," says Garriott. "The simulator is real hardware that you are operating for real. But you don't use the toilet because ... gravity changes the way it works. So the first time you ever use a space toilet is in space."

It's "sort of a rite of passage to figure out how to use a space toilet."

Earth toilets are easy: lift lid, deposit waste, flush, close lid. International Space Station instructions imaged: reality even harder!

One ticket to space? $30 million

The opportunity to live amongst the stars cost Garriott handsomely — $30 million to be precise.

Richard Garriott flew to space in 2008. 
Photo courtesy Richard Garriott.

When Garriott went to space, there were only two vehicles that could transport astronauts to the International Space Station: the Russian Soyuz, owned by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and the U.S. space shuttle, owned by NASA. (The U.S.'s space shuttle made its final landing in 2011 and no longer flies.) NASA declined Garriott's request for a seat. Roscosmos said it didn't have the resources to research what would be involved.

"We sort of took that as a qualified yes," says Garriott of the Russians' answer. So in 2000 he paid $300,000 for Roscosmos to study what it would cost to fly a private citizen to space. Roscosmos came back with a price: $20 million.

At the time, Garriott had the money.

"I had only a few years earlier sold my first gaming company, Origin [Systems], to Electronic Arts and I had well above that amount of money in my bank account and so I said, 'Great! I am going to space.' I was the first person to sign up to be the first private citizen to fly into space," he says.

By "in the bank," Garriott actually means he had some cash and a lot of stock; Electronic Arts had acquired his company for stock. Then the dotcom bust of 2001 happened.

"It wiped out the largest (by far) part of my net worth," says Garriott.

"[A]fter 20, 30 years of trying, [I] had arranged for the actual flight to take place," he says, referring to the fact that he'd grown up near a NASA facility in Texas with a dad who was an astronaut; his aim had always been to get to space. Then the markets collapsed. "And suddenly I could not pay for my trip to space. Boy was I crushed," says Garriott.

Space Adventures, which Garriott had co-founded in 1998 and is currently headquartered in Vienna, Virginia, sent Dennis Tito to space on the Soyuz in Garriott's stead. Tito had studied astronautics and aeronautics in college but went on to found Wilshire, a successful global financial services consulting firm. Tito launched in April 2001, and spent seven days in space.

"So Dennis Tito became the first private citizen to fly into space — in my seat, in my mind. Obviously it was very disappointing, but then what I did is what I have always done with gaming… I built another gaming company, sold another gaming company," says Garriott.

When Garriott finally flew in 2008, the price had ballooned to $30 million and, at the time, that was almost all the money he had.

"When I make my final payments to Russia, I am basically broke. Again. And so I literally spent the vast majority of my net worth in order to go into space," says Garriott.

In total, Garriott says he has made "many tens of millions" of dollars by building games, but he declines to be any more specific or give his current net worth.

To date, Space Adventures has coordinated eight trips to the International Space Station for seven tourists (Microsoft co-founder Charles Simonyi has flown to space twice.)

Space Adventures is the only private space company to have sent private citizens to space, both spokesperson Stacey Tearne and aerospace investment company Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson confirm to CNBC Make It. (Japanese TV journalist Toyohiro Akiyama traveled to the Soviet space station Mir in 1990 as part of a deal between Tokyo Broadcasting System and the Soviet Union. Additionally, NASA has flown "payload specialists" to space before who were not technically astronauts, NASA public affairs officer Kathryn Hambleton tells CNBC Make It.)

As a comparison... here are models of Soyuz TMA 13 that I launched aboard in 2008 & the Falcon Heavy launched last week that could have taken 56 metric tons to space vs a Tesla (given to me by my wife @LaetitiaGdC on my 56th birthday).

The company has negotiated the ability to vie for seats on the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station in the same manner as other countries, explains Garriott. Each year there are between four and eight trips to the station, he says. (Though the Russian Soyuz suffered a launch failure on Oct. 11, forcing an emergency landing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says NASA Astronauts will fly again on the Soyuz.)

Space Adventures may also soon offer seats for orbital flights on a Boeing rocket, Tearne tells CNBC Make It.

Steve Siceloff, a Boeing spokesperson, confirms the "active relationship" for CNBC Make It, which would involve securing seats on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner when missions begin, Siceloff says. (In March, there will be an unmanned test flight and in August astronauts will fly on the Boeing rocket, Siceloff tells CNBC Make It.)

See also:

Here's what it will be like to travel to Mars in Elon Musk's spaceship
Here's what it will be like to travel to Mars in Elon Musk's spaceship

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Correction: This story was revised to correct that Garriott was the sixth private citizen to go to space.