Don't call him a space tourist: Sure, the "sheer joy" of orbital flight is one of the reasons why inventor/entrepreneur Gregory Olsen is paying up to $20 million for a trip to the international space station. But he'll also be conducting research in infrared imaging and crystal growth, the fields that made him a multimillionaire.
So "private researcher," not space tourist, is the term Olsen prefers. In fact, his spaceflight, tentatively set for April 2005, would make him the world's first self-financed scientist-astronaut.
"We're going to do a lot of science up there," Olsen, the founder and chief executive officer of New Jersey-based Sensors Unlimited, said Monday at a news conference announcing his selection as the third space passenger to pay his own way.
Like the two previous passenger trips to the space station, taken by California millionaire Dennis Tito in 2001 and South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth in 2002, Olsen's eight-day odyssey is being arranged through Virginia-based Space Adventures and will rely on Russian spacecraft. The published price for such trips is $20 million, although that price tag has been discounted in the past.
Space Adventures' president and chief executive officer, Eric Anderson, said Olsen's scientific bent made him the "ideal candidate" for the flight.
"He really is proposing his own space program in eight days," Anderson said.
Sensors and crystals
Olsen plans to bring along his company's miniaturized infrared imager to observe Earth's atmosphere and agricultural crops from above.
Such infrared cameras are used in night-vision systems as well as remote-sensing devices that can pick up the normally invisible signs of pollution or crop damage. He also intends to turn the camera toward space and conduct near-infrared astronomy — which cannot be done from Earth due to the atmosphere's effect.
For other experiments, Olsen will use existing apparatus on the space station to grow the kinds of three-element crystals used in infrared sensors — research that he hopes will prove "we can make a better and larger crystal up in space."
He is aiming to translate his findings into research papers on infrared imaging as well as potential new products for his company. "It's a tall order, but it's possible we could have that at the end of this mission," he told MSNBC.com.
Along with the science, Olsen plans to use his space experience as a means of motivating students to pursue careers in science, engineering and space. "To me, the value of the mission really begins the day I land," he said.
'I have no fears'
Olsen would be the first paying passenger to go up in space since the Columbia tragedy, which killed seven astronauts in February 2003 and grounded the shuttle fleet. NASA's return to human spaceflight has been delayed until next March at the earliest, due to safety concerns, but Olsen voiced no qualms about riding a Russian Soyuz capsule into space.
"I have no fears of the trip," he said. "It's going to be all right, just like when I go out and cross Fifth Avenue and dodge a bus."
Olsen is divorced with two grown daughters, and splits his time between homes in New Jersey and Manhattan. One of his daughters, Krista Dibsie, was on hand for the news conference and told MSNBC.com that the family was supportive of the mission.
"We're very excited, but not too nervous," she said. "We're very proud of him. He does what he sets out to do."
Olsen, 58, was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Ridgefield Park, N.J. He admits that his school record wasn't stellar — he was once suspended and had to make up a trigonometry class in order to enter college — but after graduation, his career skyrocketed. He was awarded 10 patents during his stint as a research scientist at RCA Laboratories, then started up a photodiode-manufacturing company that was sold for $12 million in 1990.
He then created Sensors Unlimited, which was sold to Finisar Corp. in 2000 for $700 million. Two years later, after the high-tech boom turned to bust, he and other members of the old management team bought back the company for $6.1 million. The company now specializes in producing the imaging arrays used in shortwave and near-infrared cameras for military range-finding as well as remote-sensing applications.
Olsen said his space aspirations were sparked a year ago when he read a newspaper article on Space Adventures, and were fleshed out during months of negotiations and soul-searching.
"If it was just an eight-day joyride, I think I would struggle with doing this," he said. "But in addition to being an eight-day joyride, which I'm looking forward to, we have the science part. It's what I'm going to do with this experience afterward — this is how I'm going to be able to look in the mirror at myself and say, 'This was a good thing you did. This was worthwhile.'"
The rules for space passengers
For much of the next year, Olsen will leave Sensors Unlimited in the care of his executive team while he trains for his flight. He's due to leave Wednesday for six months of training at Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex, where he will learn Russian-language basics as well as the procedures for the Soyuz craft and the space station.
Eventually he'll have to put in some training at NASA's Johnson Space Center as well. Back in 2001, Dennis Tito's trip stirred up plenty of friction with NASA officials, but since then, the space agencies that manage the 16-nation space station effort have set up standard procedures for would-be passengers.
"So far, it appears that Russia is following those procedures," NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told MSNBC.com. Olsen has passed one round of Russian medical examinations, but over the next year he will have to undergo further exams, receive official designation as a member of the Soyuz crew and win approval from the space station partners.
If everything goes according to plan, Olsen would fly up to the station alongside two professional astronauts, and fly down a week later on a different Soyuz craft. Such "taxi missions" are scheduled every six months as part of the regular rotation for the Soyuz lifeboats.
With the shuttle fleet grounded, the taxi missions have been used to swap space station crews every six months. Russia has asked NASA to consider yearlong station missions to make more room for paying passengers, but Anderson said Olsen's flight was not dependent on NASA agreeing to the yearlong tours of duty.
The taxi missions have given the Russian Aviation and Space Agency a desperately needed opportunity to supplement their anemic government budget with private funds. By some accounts, $20 million or so could cover much of the cost of a Soyuz launch.
Anderson said he had six to 10 other "serious candidates" waiting for future flights. He said there's even a slim chance that Olsen could fly early, during the taxi mission scheduled in October. That would tighten up the schedule for training and preparations for the scientific experiments, but Olsen said he wasn't concerned about that.
"I want to go as soon as I can," Olsen told MSNBC.com, "and if there's any possibility that we can go in October, I'm going."