Space traveler Gregory Olsen recounts out-of-this-world experiences

Fare-paying cosmonaut hosted by Historical Society of Princeton

By: Ross Kenneth Urken
   Dr. Gregory Olsen spoke Thursday on a subject literally out of this world.
   The entrepreneur and recent space-flight participant encouraged others to rise above adversity when he delivered The Historical Society of Princeton’s Lewis B. Cuyler Lecture about his recent trip to the International Space Station.
   The third fare-paying civilian to travel to space, the 60-year-old Dr. Olsen explained to a half-filled Princeton High School auditorium the obstacles he had to overcome in gaining permission to take his 10-day trip to space, which began on Oct. 1.
   "I was originally supposed to go into space in October of 2004, but a spot came up on a lung X-ray," he said. "Sometimes, in all of our lives, something has devastated us … but you really find what you’re made of in hard times. I didn’t give up. I kept throwing medical data at Russian doctors."
   He continued to stress the importance of perseverance, especially in the sciences.
   "There is a common misconception that scientists whiz through everything, every course," he said. "But I have never had a math course I didn’t struggle with. I failed trigonometry when I was in high school. If you really want something enough, just hang in there long enough, and you can achieve it."
   Dr. Olsen, whose trip included more than 3 million miles traveled in space and more than 100 orbits of Earth, showed slides and video footage of his trip.
   But before his trip, he had to face and overcome the intense preparation. Dr. Olsen expressed his enjoyment of the strenuous training period, amounting to 900 hours of cosmonaut training for the orbital space flight on a Russian Soyuz TMA-7.
   "For me, the experience was a lot like being back in college," he said. "I had a final exam almost every week. It was a great experience being back at school."
   Having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Fairleigh Dickinson University, followed by a doctorate in materials science from the University of Virginia, Dr. Olsen has known the importance of hard school work. He continued this work ethic when, in 1991, he co-founded Sensors Unlimited Inc., which develops optoelectronic devices such as sensitive-near infrared and short-wave infrared cameras. The company, which he left this past October, boasts NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as one of its largest clients.
   He did the majority of his cosmonaut preparation at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, just outside Moscow. Apart from time in the classroom, his training included physical tests, flight simulations and survival training in preparation for landing in water, forests, deserts or mountains.
   But Dr. Olsen said the physical demands were not the most challenging.
   "I had to take Russian lessons," he mused. "That was probably the hardest part of the process."
   And it was Dr. Olsen’s making the trip at 60 that impressed much of the audience.
   "He does inspire," Historical Society board of trustees member John Tucker said. "He’s a man of conviction, of true scientific dedication. He inspires not only young people, but he inspires grandparents, too. I mean, look at him."
   Instead of seeing arrogance in a man so successful and fit for his age, many were impressed with Dr. Olsen’s humility.
   "He’s a very self-effacing guy," Mr. Tucker said.
   Said Dr. Olsen, "I am not an astronaut or a cosmonaut. I have too much respect for those people and what they can do to consider myself one of them."
   And perhaps because of this admission, he cannot rid himself of the title "space tourist." Though Dr. Olsen did go through extensive training, he was, in fact, an onlooker onboard with few actual duties in his voyage.
   "I got to operate the oxygen valve," he said. "I had very few responsibilities. They told me, ‘Don’t get in trouble and don’t cause problems.’ When it was all over, I said, ‘Thank God I didn’t screw up.’"
   So for Dr. Olsen, the trip was largely not for scientific objectives, but rather for pleasure as an interested scientist.
   "Just floating — I could stay like that for another 100 days," he said. "I loved it. I would go right now."
   During his speech, Dr. Olsen continued to show footage of himself during which he plays and enjoys the weightlessness of space. He shoots water out from the tap and catches the congealed floating molecules in his mouth. "Some ask, ‘How do you go to the bathroom in space.’ This will show you part of the problem," he joked.
   His desire for space travel actually originated in Princeton in June 2003. "I always admired space," Dr. Olsen said, "And one morning, I was sitting in Starbucks on Nassau Street reading about Dennis Tito when the idea came to me."
   Mr. Tito, a California businessman, was the first space tourist in 2001 followed by Mark Shuttleworth in 2002. Space Adventures has brokered the training and space excursion for all three men, including Dr. Olsen, for a cost of $20 million each, according of several media sources.
   Because of his membership in the Historical Society since 2000, and the fact that his idea for a space flight originated in Princeton, the society felt Dr. Olsen was a perfect choice to deliver the Cuyler Lecture.