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.)
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.)