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Moving Forward: Richard Garriott

Conquest - Fall 2009

By Gail Goodwin

Growing up in Houston with a NASA astronaut for a dad, Richard Garriott set his eyes on the sky.

However, his hopes were initially dashed when a doctor told him his poor eyesight would prohibit him from becoming an astronaut. Determined to fly into outer space, Garriott resolved to find his own way.

All kids grow up with a fascination of flying into space,” Garriott says. “The difference here is that I lived in a neighborhood where some people actually did go into space.”

Richard Garriott

During his college days, Garriott founded a start-up videogame company, Origin Systems, and later invested in and became vice chairman of Space Adventures, a company involved in space tourism.

Eager to become a space tourist himself, he had a full medical work-up, a necessity to be cleared for space travel.

The testing revealed a liver tumor called a giant hemangioma. Although the tumor was benign, it caused high internal pressure. Blood flowing from the feeding arteries accumulated without the proper venous outflow of normal organs. While Garriott didn’t feel the tumor and had no symptoms, he was at risk of its rupturing during a space landing.

When it was determined that this surgery in an otherwise healthy patient needed specialized expertise, the physician-in-chief of NASA referred Garriott to Jean-Nicolas Vauthey, M.D., professor in the Department of Surgical Oncology at M. D. Anderson.

Garriott arrived at M. D. Anderson in early January 2008 for this unusual surgery, during which Vauthey performed an enucleation of the hemangioma, a procedure that does not remove any liver tissue. Few surgeons in the world have the ability to perform this surgery, often called the two-surgeon technique and first described in a 2006 scientific report from M. D. Anderson.

“My experience was unusual,” Garriott says. “I sat in M. D. Anderson waiting rooms with other people who were here for cancer treatment, but my case was optional — I just wanted to fly into outer space. The expertise of the doctors, nurses and staff and the positive attitudes of the patients are things I’ll always remember.”

By the end of January, less than a month after surgery, Garriott was at a Russian training center to prepare for his space flight. On Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008, with Garriott on board, the Soyuz TMA-13, a Russian space module, blasted off for 12 days in space and the International Space Station.

As part of his flight, Garriott took part in several education and scientific outreach efforts. He is most proud of the experiment involving eyesight, which demonstrated that individuals with eyesight problems corrected by Lasik surgery would have no problem during space flights. As a result, NASA now allows people with photorefractive keratectomy to become astronauts.

Though Garriott is retired, he says that the space industry will always be part of his life. He’s committed to making space travel more possible for the private citizen.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center