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AUSTIN - Richard Garriott hefts his Sputnik overhead like a shiny aluminum beach ball, playing with history.
"It's a beautiful thing," Garriott says of the hollow sphere with its four famous whisker antennae, which he has left partly disassembled so the shortened shafts can serve as legs.
Most collectors of space memorabilia buy things such as astronaut autographs, mission patches and "flown" goods - objects that have made the trip to space and back, and which then make their way to auctions, swap meets and collector web- sites.
But Garriott, 46, has amassed a personal fortune that is measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, thanks to his pioneering role as a creator of computer games, so his treasures tend to be actual treasures.
The object that Garriott jokingly calls "Mr. Sputnik" is not, of course, the actual Sputnik that the Soviet Union launched 50 years ago, on October 4 1957.
That one burned up as it re-entered the atmosphere three months later. But neither is it one of the many replicas manufactured after the fact.
Records are hard to come by and facts are hard to verify, said Robert Pearlman, who runs the website collectspace.com. But after looking into Garriott's purchase, he said, "I am convinced that it's authentic."
In his research with the Russian space agency, Pearlman said, he found that it was one of only a half dozen spares that were made. In fact, he said, it is "the only Sputnik I have been able to verify is in private hands." The one hanging in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington? A vintage replica on loan from the Russian Academy of Sciences. "There are other claims," he said, "but they are dubious".
Some question whether spares exist at all. Charles Schollenberger, a collector in Prairie Village, Kansas, who has followed the trail to Russian designers who worked on the original, said flatly, "The many people who have bought 'duplicates' or 'back-ups' over the years have unfortunately bought the Russian equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge."
To Garriott, in any case, Sputnik is virtually part of the family. He grew up with a foot in space; his father, Owen K. Garriott, is a retired astronaut who spent 60 days aboard Skylab in 1973 and who flew on the space shuttle in 1983.
Growing up in a Houston suburb near the NASA space centre, life was less like the Waltons than the Jetsons, the younger Garriott recalled. The neighbors were astronauts and NASA engineers. His father brought home gadgets that NASA was testing, like the early version of a night-vision scope that Richard Garriott used to track the family cats in the backyard.
By the time the younger Garriott entered the University of Texas, he was already well along his career path, blending the talents he inherited from his scientist father and his mother, Helen Garriott, an artist. He turned early personal computers into machines that could entertain and created the Ultima series of fantasy computer games. His latest game, Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa will be released by NCsoft on the 19th of this month.
As he grew more successful, he began travelling and collecting things that reflected his interests. He has visited all seven continents, hunting for meteorites in Antarctica and checking out hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
Garriott built a hilltop home outside Austin that houses his collections and has an observatory, secret passageways and a dungeon. He shows it all off with a child's delight, relishing the technical details of objects like automatons, the gear work devices that were precursors to robots; a navigational sphere, a hand-held planetarium projector used on Russian space missions to align the capsule visually; and a sextant used by the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. "It's all related," he said.
Small wonder, then, that when a Sputnik became available from the cash-strapped Russians in the post-Soviet fire sale, he snapped it up, spending less than R100000.
The shipper he was working with, however, warned that customs agents might cause problems for transporting the odd, and perhaps ominous-looking, artefact. So the shipper carefully removed the antennae and the tiny screws that held the device together, separating it into two large half spheres.
"We described them as salad bowls" on the customs forms, Garriott said with a mischievous smile. "It came through without a hiccup."
This Sputnik will never beep. The electronics that filled the original were not made for every spare, Pearlman said. Garriott's contained a small box of mounting brackets and connectors.
Pearlman, who is publishing an article about Garriott's Sputnik on his site this week and who once worked at Space Adventures, a space tourism company Garriott helped to found, estimates that the current value at auction could be R2,4million.
Garriott mentioned to his father that he owned a Sputnik only in recent weeks, and was surprised to discover that his father's link was even stronger than he had known.
Owen Garriott sent his son an excited e-mail message describing Friday, October 4 1957, when he was a graduate student studying radio technology at Stanford University.
A crowd formed at the radio lab and tuned in to hear the distinctive be-beep, be-beep, be-beep. They noticed a Doppler shift - the phenomenon that makes a train whistle sound higher when approaching and deeper as it departs.
The elder Garriott wrote, "This provided me a fantastic opportunity to get started in research on radio signals from Earth satellites and the effects produced on them by passage through the Earth's ionosphere at the very beginning of the space age." This became the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation.
Richard Garriott said, "The reason my dad was chosen as an astronaut was largely through his work in radio-wave propagation."
Now the younger Garriott plans to follow in his father's footsteps.