After two weeks of training to become the world's next paying space passenger, Gregory Olsen isn't put off by the physical rigors or the scientific instruction — mastering the tongue-tangling sounds and complex grammar of Russian is the tough task.
Olsen, who made a fortune with optics inventions, aims to become the third person to buy a ride to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Liftoff would be next April.
The $20 million price tag includes six months at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, a compound surrounded by woods north of Moscow, working in mockups of the Soyuz and the space station and undergoing physical conditioning, scientific lessons and language training.
"Learning to speak Russian is the most difficult part," the 59-year-old American told reporters Wednesday. "I like the physical training. ... I have a lot of scientific training, so I don't anticipate that as being difficult."
It's not Manhattan
He does feel some twinges when he compares life at Star City to the comforts he's known as a wealthy man in Manhattan and in Princeton, N.J., where his company Sensors Unlimited is based.
"At Star City it’s more like, I guess, a military base, so you don't have many restaurants, places to go, things to do, so I miss that part of it," Olsen said, but he acknowledged that's probably good because "I want to focus on the mission, I don't want a lot of distraction."
Nor does he want the trip to be just "having a great time orbiting the Earth."
Olsen plans to conduct experiments on the health of agricultural crops, crystal growth in zero gravity and atmospheric analysis — all of which he believes will prove to be of scientific value.
He also hopes to hold video hookups with schools in order to encourage young people to buckle down and study mathematics and science.
Investment in infrared
In addition, Olsen wants to show that his own infrared cameras are useful for gathering data in space, but said he does not expect direct commercial benefits immediately.
"I don't know if it's a good investment for the company. I think it's a good investment for me long-term because it's a life-changing experience," he said. "What makes me excited is just being weightless, having that feeling, orbiting the Earth just doing something that is a tremendous experience."
Despite the trip's exoticism, he has to follow one of the cardinal rules of terrestrial tourists: pack light. He has a luggage allowance of only 22 pounds (10 kilograms) for personal foods, cameras and belongings.
"I have a wine farm in South Africa and we make a limited amount of wine, and I want to bring labels up on the ship and stamp them and then bring them back as souvenirs and put them on a bottle of my wine," he said.
Olsen said the two previous space millionaires — American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth — have been very supportive.
"They and the astronauts and cosmonauts that I've met have said 'whatever you think it's like now, it's much better,'" he said.