In his travels from Brooklyn to the threshold of outer space, Greg Olsen has been through incredible highs and lows: from an admittedly less-than-stellar academic record to scientific success, from hard times in business to multimillion-dollar deals.
But Olsen's biggest highs and lows have come since he decided to plunk down $20 million for a visit to the international space station: Just weeks after he started training, Russian doctors kicked him off the crew because they didn’t like the looks of his medical tests.
“It was a huge blow,” the 60-year-old inventor-businessman told MSNBC.com in an exclusive face-to-face interview this month in Moscow, “and that’s what builds your character.”
It took almost a year to persuade the doctors to let him back in training, and now he’s on the verge of the highest high of all: this weekend's launch to the space station.
Why is Olsen going through all that aggravation and spending all that money? When a Russian reporter recently asked him that question, Olsen answered simply, in Russian: “Ya lyublyu kosmos.”
The reporter persisted: Why does he love the cosmos? Olsen then nodded toward his professional crewmates, NASA astronaut Bill McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev. “The same reason they love it — to be weightless, to see the Earth from space,” he said, in English this time. “It’s a great experience, and I really look forward to it.”
But even though he's looking forward, he's also bracing himself for further character-building exercises ahead.
“I’m not an astronaut or a cosmonaut. But on the other hand, space is not for wimps,” he told MSNBC.com. “It’s certainly not just writing a check, going off into space. It’s a challenging process. It challenges you physically, emotionally, intellectually, and it’s a wonderful experience. Launching is going to be the culmination of it.”
A charmed life?
From the outside, Olsen might seem to have led a charmed life, in a succession of high-tech businesses, in his cosmic avocation and even in physical appearance: His rugged looks have been compared to Clint Eastwood’s so many times that he says he’s waiting for the day “when people tell Clint Eastwood that he looks like Greg Olsen.”
Sure, he had his troubles growing up: Born in Brooklyn to an electrician father and a schoolteacher mother, Olsen got into scrapes during his teen years in New Jersey, and was once arrested for the stereotypical 1950s-era offense of stealing hubcaps. But he turned all that around in college, becoming “a good B student” and earning degrees in physics and materials science from Fairleigh Dickinson and the University of Virginia.
Today, Olsen says his interest in math and science was fueled in part by the enthusiasm of the early space race, from Sputnik in 1957 to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969. “I never imagined back then that I would be following his footsteps in some small way, but it planted the seeds,” he said.
Olsen honed his scientific talents at RCA, where he developed new technologies in fiber optics – specifically, light detectors and emitters that use indium gallium arsenide crystals.
The devices that he invented can be used to focus signals for fiber-optic transmissions, or to see things in infrared wavelengths that are invisible to the human eye. For example, one of Olsen’s infrared imagers was used during this summer’s Discovery mission to inspect the shuttle’s protective skin for damage.
In 1984, Olsen left RCA and founded his own company to capitalize on the technology. The company, called Epitaxx, was sold to the Japanese for $12 million in 1990 — just before Japan’s financial bubble burst.
Olsen plowed his profits into yet another startup, Sensors Unlimited, which specialized in infrared imagers. In 2000, the company was sold for $700 million. Then the bottom fell out of the high-tech market, and Olsen and his management team bought the company back in 2002 for just $6 million.
Olsen now serves as Sensors Unlimited’s chairman of the board, but says he’s not played much of a role in the company’s management since the buyback.
Just this month, Goodrich Corp., an aerospace and defense contractor, announced that it was buying Sensors Unlimited yet again, this time for $60 million in cash.
Olsen sounded almost apologetic about his knack for selling high and buying low.
“All the good things in my life have been preceded by some sort of struggle,” he told MSNBC.com. “People say, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful, you go start a company and you sell it for a lot of money.’ But I’m not sure people are aware of how much hard work is involved, and how many setbacks you have to endure. You know, just like the space trip.”
The ups and downs of a space dream
Olsen’s childhood interest in space was reawakened with a vengeance in 2003, when he read about the multimillion-dollar space trips taken by California investment manager Dennis Tito and South African dot-com entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. Soon he was in contact with Virginia-based Space Adventures, the company that helped arrange those earlier trips aboard Russia’s Soyuz transport spaceships.
After a preliminary trip to Russia — in part to check out the Spartan accommodations at the Star City cosmonaut training complex — Olsen signed up for the $20 million trip himself. He started a six-month training program in June 2004, in hopes of flying that October. Little did he know it would take a year longer, due to the Russian doctors’ medical concerns.
Olsen has kept mum about the exact nature of the problem, other than to say “something turned up in a test.” He emphasized that the concern was not life-threatening. In fact, he said his American doctor told him nothing needed to be done — which added to the frustration.
“Three months after I went home, it had disappeared,” Olsen said.
Olsen and his doctors kept sending medical updates to the Russians, and he stuck with a workout routine that kept him in prime physical shape.
“I don’t give up easy,” he said. “You can’t, because once you give up mentally, it’s all over. You’ve got to keep that determination going.”
After months of follow-up tests, the Russian doctors admitted that “the old condition had pretty much gone away,” Olsen said. One big test remained: a review by the Russian space program’s medical commission.
While Olsen was attending a technology conference in Scotland, he got a message from Space Adventures’ chief executive officer and president, Eric Anderson: Get over to Russia this weekend for the big commission meeting.
“So I did,” Olsen recalled. “I went through this medical test, and they said, ‘All right, you pass, you’re back in the program.’ So I said, ‘Well, when can I start?’ And they said, ‘How about Monday?’”
Olsen decided then and there to stay in Russia with his overnight bag, buy what he needed to buy, and have the rest of his effects sent over later. Two days after doctors gave the green light, “I was back in class, and I haven’t stopped since,” he said.
Going to space school
Olsen said cosmonaut training has been “like being a college student again.” Of course, not many college students get to take parabolic zero-gravity flights, or spin around in a centrifuge at up to 8 Gs of acceleration. In comparison, shuttle astronauts generally experience a maximum of 3 Gs — that is, three times Earth’s gravitational pull.
But most of the training is spent in classrooms, where Olsen and his two professional crewmates learn the ins and outs of the Soyuz vehicle they will ride next month as well as the international space station. And like students stuffed in a phone booth, the three crew members spend hours going through procedures in a cramped Soyuz simulator at Star City.
Perhaps the most arduous task came during a water-landing exercise, when the three had to change into wet suits and don survival gear, sometimes lying on top of each other to accomplish the task. The 6'1" Olsen, who usually weighs about 170 pounds (77 kilograms), said he sweated off more than 3 pounds (1.5 kilograms) in two hours.
Despite those trials, Olsen says the physical aspect of the training has been the easiest part. And the hardest part?
“That for me has been trying to learn Russian,” he said. “I want to. I love Russians and the Russian culture. … But I’ve never been good at languages since I was a young person.”
Olsen said he’s bonded well with his veteran crewmates — NASA’s McArthur, who will serve as space station commander; and Russia’s Tokarev, who will serve as the Soyuz commander.
“I’m just in awe of them,” he said. “When I watch them operate the Soyuz and the ISS simulators, they seem to know every nut and bolt on the vehicle. I just stand there and try to soak up the knowledge.”
The risks and routines of space
For more than a year, people have been asking Olsen whether he’s worried about flying up into space, particularly in light of the 2003 Columbia tragedy. And for more than a year, Olsen has been telling people that he’s more worried about crossing the street — in New York or Moscow.
“I’ve looked at this, and I’m very, very confident in the Russian Soyuz vehicle,” he said. “They have a great safety record, and I have no qualms about doing this whatsoever. Listen, if I did, I wouldn’t go. It’s that simple. I’m not going to pay a lot of money to do something that I’m tenuous about.”
The main aim of the Soyuz mission is to switch crews, along with the emergency capsules that always have to be attached to the space station in case there’s ever need for a quick escape.
McArthur and Tokarev will relieve the station’s current crew, Russia’s Sergei Krikalev and NASA’s John Phillips, and stay in orbit for six months. After a week’s transition period, Krikalev and Phillips will ride back down to Earth on the Soyuz currently attached to the station. Both on the way up and the way down, Olsen will fill the “third seat” on the Soyuz.
Russian space policy analyst Yuri Karash said selling the third seat will generate extra cash for Moscow’s space program, as the earlier flights by Tito and Shuttleworth did. “The Russians do it not because they love space tourism, but because they have to raise money for other activities,” he told MSNBC.com.
Olsen is expected to know his way around the Soyuz and the space station, and help out generally with the day-to-day routine — but neither NASA nor the Russians are assigning him a heavy-duty orbital agenda. Last year, he had hoped to test zero-gravity production methods for the kinds of crystals used in his company’s products, but it turns out that the required research facilities are unavailable.
Another big project — a University of Virginia spectrometer that incorporates infrared imaging gear from Sensors Unlimited — became stuck in limbo, due to U.S. export restrictions. Olsen said Virginia students have worked for a year and a half to build the instrument, which could be used to make astronomical as well as Earth observations in near-infrared wavelengths.
“It would be such a joy for them to see this thing in space,” Olsen said. “I want it as much for them as I do for myself.”
Olsen has lined up some other experiments for the European Space Agency, focusing on bacteria growth in zero-G as well as how spaceflight affects the lower back and the vestibular system of the inner ear. “In a sense, I’m a guinea pig,” he said.
The view from the top
But for Olsen personally, one of the most important agenda items is to document the experience with still photography and video. His discussions with professional astronauts, as well as with Tito and Shuttleworth, have thoroughly whetted his appetite for matchless views of Earth from a height of 220 miles (350 kilometers).
“They all tell me that whatever I think it is now, it’s going to be better when I get up there,” he said.
A wide assortment of mementos will be making the round trip with Olsen: souvenir banners for the University of Virginia and other institutions; a set of keys from his dad; a Civil War medallion from the late historian Brian Pohanka, which will be returned to his widow; and wine labels that Olsen will put on Christmas gift bottles from the winery he owns in South Africa.
During the mission, Olsen plans to share his experiences via a series of video and ham-radio downlinks. And he hopes his journey to the cosmos will still pay dividends even after the mission, which is due to end with an Oct. 11 landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
“People ask me, ‘What are you going to do when you come back?’ And I have the perfect answer: I don’t have the slightest idea,” he said. “When I come back, I’ll have to say, well, what do I want to do with the rest of my life? I think space is going to help me — not just being up there, but the whole experience of going through it. It’s going to help me figure that out.”