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Space passenger Olsen to pull his own weight

Space passenger Greg Olsen may be paying $20 million for a ride to the international space station but that doesn’t mean he’ll get out of helping with the chores in orbit.
NASA astronaut Bill McArthur, left, Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, center, and U.S. space passenger Greg Olsen, right, shake hands after a news conference in the Star City cosmonaut training center, outside Moscow.Mikhail Metzel / AP

Space passenger Greg Olsen may be paying $20 million for a ride to the international space station next month, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get out of doing the chores in orbit.

Olsen will be expected to help out with cleaning up the place or preparing meals, just like any crew member, said NASA astronaut Bill McArthur, who will be accompanying Olsen on a Russian Soyuz craft to take command of the space station.

“Greg really is a full member of the crew,” McArthur told during a Tuesday news conference at the Russian cosmonaut training center here. “We look at who is busy with tasks, and who has free time that’s convenient. And if I fall in that situation, then I’m the one to make lunch.”

Tuesday’s session with Olsen, McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev was the latest press event in a sort of farewell tour for the departing Soyuz crew. The three men are due to go into quarantine on Sunday, in preparation for the Oct. 1 launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

McArthur and Tokarev are due to relieve the station’s current long-term occupants, Russia’s Sergei Krikalev and NASA’s John Phillips, and begin a six-month tour of duty on the station. Olsen, however, will come back down to Earth with Krikalev and Phillips after a week on the orbital outpost.

Olsen, a 60-year-old New Jersey inventor/entrepreneur, is following in the footsteps of California millionaire Dennis Tito and South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth — paying the Russians an eight-figure sum for months of cosmonaut training and the round trip to the space station. The Russians make such private-passenger seats available to raise money for their space program.

"I can guarantee that every cent from Gregory Olsen goes back into the federal space program," said Alexei Krasnov, director of manned spaceflight programs for Russia's Federal Space Agency.

More than a 'space tourist'?
Olsen made his fortune in fiber-optics communications and infrared imaging. He is the founder and current chairman of the board at New Jersey-based Sensors Unlimited, which is due to be purchased for $60 million by Goodrich Corp. by the end of the year.

Olsen dislikes the term “space tourist” and prefers to be called a private space researcher. He told reporters that his scientific background, which includes a Ph.D. in materials science, was one of the motivating factors for his trip.

“I'm a scientist in physics and electrical engineering, so space obviously is a very big interest,” he said.

In fact, one of Olsen’s infrared imagers was used during this summer’s Discovery mission to inspect the shuttle’s protective skin for damage.

In contrast with the years of training that professional astronauts go through, Olsen has trained for only six months at Star City. When asked why he was taking such a big risk on spaceflight with such limited training, Olsen replied, “I don’t view it as a risk at all. It’s a very exciting experience. I’ve got one of the best crews there ever were. … It’s been a privilege for me to train with them.”

His crewmates returned the compliment.

“He’s never been a pilot, but the fact that he’s an engineer brings a lot to our team,” Tokarev said.

“He has proven to be a tremendous asset in our training,” McArthur said. “He isn’t trained differently. He certainly has less extensive training than Valery and I have. But at the same time, in our simulations … we’ve found that having a third set of hands to perform various tasks truly makes us significantly more effective. We’re really looking forward to having Greg in space with us.”

Medical problem caused delays
Olsen actually began training more than a year ago, but Russian doctors disqualified him shortly after he started because "something turned up in a test," he told Although Olsen has not publicized the precise nature of the medical condition, he said it faded away by itself, only three months after he went back home. Follow-up tests persuaded the Russian medical team to let him resume training in May, after a gap of nearly a year.

He said about 35 friends and family members, including his 4 1/2-year-old grandson, are due to attend the launch at Baikonur. It will take almost two days for the Soyuz to reach the space station, orbiting 225 miles (350 kilometers) above the earth.

Once he gets there, Olsen doesn’t intend to just sit around and just look out the window —although that is part of the appeal of the voyage. He’s already set up to participate in three biological experiments for the European Space Agency, focusing on bacteria growth, lower back pain and how spaceflight upsets the vestibular system of the inner ear. He'll also be using video and still cameras to record the sights, and participate in ham-radio and video downlinks.

What’s more, he still hopes to bring up a spectrometer built by students at the University of Virginia, with components from his own company. The spectrometer hasn’t yet been cleared for takeoff, due to U.S. export restrictions. If officials can cut through the red tape by launch time, Olsen would use the instrument to analyze moisture levels in vegetation on Earth as well as the chemical content of clouds.

“If I’m lucky, I’ll have a lot to do,” Olsen told reporters.

Does astronaut have a return ticket?
McArthur and NASA, meanwhile, have their own red tape to deal with: Russia’s agreement to provide free rides to U.S. astronauts is due to lapse after next month’s launch, but currently, the Iran Nonproliferation Act would bar NASA from paying the Russians for future flights on Soyuz craft.

To get around the problem, NASA plans to bring McArthur back to Earth on a space shuttle next spring, but if future flights are delayed due to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath or other problems, he could find himself without a shuttle ride.

Negotiations over the issue are continuing, and there have been some hints that provisions of the act may be waived to let NASA purchase seats on future Soyuz craft.

Russian officials were repeatedly asked whether there was a chance that McArthur could be marooned aboard the station when his six-month stint was over, but Nikolai Sevastianov, head of the Energia rocket company that makes the Soyuz spaceships, brushed off such concerns.

“Of course he’ll come back on the Soyuz if the shuttle is not ready,” he said.