The world’s third fare-paying visitor to the international space station is back home in the U.S. after a successful spaceflight that peaked with 10 days in orbit.
Gregory Olsen, a New Jersey scientist and entrepreneur who reportedly paid about $20 million to visit the space station, said Monday that not only was the trip worth the hefty price, but he’s more than willing to go again after taking some time to reflect on the experience.
“I want to digest this and see what my next move in life is,” Olsen, 60, told Space.com, adding that he shook off the effects of spaceflight about 24 hours after landing. “The first day I came back I was a little wobbly.”
Olsen returned to Earth on Oct. 10 with Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips, who had wrapped up a six-month mission to the space station. The landing came 10 days after Olsen launched to the ISS with Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev. Olsen said he returned to the United States on Saturday.
The most memorable aspect of the flight by far was floating around the space station and watching Earth pass by in the window, Olsen said. The experience of liftoff — just as the rocket began to rise toward space — was also a highlight.
Olsen shared his spaceflight experience with students via ham radio sessions from the space station, and he hopes to continue that process now that he’s back on Earth.
“It’s extremely important,” Olsen said of sharing his flight with others. “We want to go into space, it’s the next step in exploration. … We need to fire up the imaginations of people.”
An interesting landing
While Olsen’s launch and Oct. 3 docking at the space station were smooth, a pressurization glitch aboard the Soyuz TMA-6 carrying him and the Expedition 11 crew home made for an interesting descent.
"We had certain problems with pressurization before undocking and certain pressurization problems in the descent,” Krikalev said during a post-landing press conference on Oct. 13, according to Russia's Interfax News Agency. “In fact, it was a fairly serious situation."
The Expedition 11 astronauts kept their cool and kept close tabs on the glitch during re-entry, and all three space fliers were clad in their Russian-built Sokol spacesuits — a standard precaution — for an extra layer of protection, Olsen said.
“But at no time was there panic or alarm, or anything of that sort,” Olsen said of the glitch, adding that at one point in the descent he added more oxygen into the Soyuz cabin under Krikalev’s instructions. “We had practiced that many times during simulations. … I thought they handled it like pros.”
Olsen said that while he enjoyed the descent, he was somewhat saddened to say goodbye to Expedition 12’s McArthur and Tokarev.
The scientist-CEO trained repeatedly with the two veteran astronauts, and Tokarev even designed a special patch for Olsen’s flight, which he presented to the spaceflight participant one month before launch, Olsen said.
“It was a little tough and a little wistful, because both of them took me under their wings,” Olsen said of his departure. “I felt very grateful to them because they helped me get into space, and I felt I was leaving them behind.”
Olsen’s spaceflight capped a challenging road into orbit, which began in March 2004 but was cut short when an undisclosed medical condition prevented him from completing his first round of cosmonaut training in Russia’s Star City. Olsen was able to resume training in May 2005, but the period between July 2004 and March 2005 was a “really tough time,” he said.
“I was devastated last year with the medical thing,” Olsen said. “I felt this [flight] was a vindication.”
Olsen’s trip followed the 2002 space station flight by South African Internet mogul Mark Shuttleworth and the 2001 trip by California investment expert Dennis Tito. All three trips were brokered by Arlington, Va.-based space tourism firm Space Adventures.
Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto and an American are reportedly in the running to be the next paying visitor to the ISS, according to Russia’s Federal Space Agency and the country’s Interfax news agency.
Stacey Tearne, a Space Adventures spokeswoman, said there’s a long list of people interested in becoming the fourth space tourist to the ISS, and an announcement could come as early as next month.
An orbital ride
During his flight, Olsen performed a series of experiments for the European Space Agency, designed to study the human body’s reaction to spaceflight.
Each day, he would swivel his head and body through a series of planned motions, then record his vestibular reactions in a notebook, Olsen said. He also swabbed different areas inside the space station for a bacterial study.
The amount of stowed cargo in the space station surprised Olsen — but made sense, considering that the space station crews spent six months at a time aboard the orbital laboratory, he said.
Long stretches without visiting NASA space shuttles — Discovery’s flight in July was the first to the station since December 2002 — have prevented crews from shedding all their unneeded items and required them to stock additional spare parts and equipment.
Olsen did lose track of a small digital camera, which accidentally drifted out of his pocket during the spaceflight.
“I had some nice shots of going up in the Soyuz on that,” Olsen said adding that he hopes it turns up. “Fortunately, I had a lot of other video and stills from the flight.”
Olsen had hoped to bring an infrared spectrometer incorporating equipment from Sensors Unlimited, Inc. — the Princeton, N.J. company he co-founded — to the space station, but the instrument’s shipment from the United States to Russia was delayed due to export regulations, he said.
Export controls aside, Olsen said he was very satisfied with life aboard the station. He said that the food was tasty — the shrimp cocktail was better than in some restaurants on Earth — and that he got a chance to dig into the reserved “bonus boxes” that contained extra goodies for ISS astronauts.
“I did raid the bonus boxes of Krikalev and Phillips, since they were going back down,” he said.
Olsen praised the multinational partnership that led to the space station, adding that the dependability of Russia’s Soyuz vehicles is an impressive feat.
“The Russians do spaceflight very well,” Olsen said.