Rocket Man Gregory Olsen Kicks Off IEEE Global Leaders Series

The space tourist helps the IEEE Foundation raise awareness of its philanthropic projects

21 March 2017

It’s not every day you get to meet an IEEE Fellow who traveled as a private citizen to the International Space Station. Entrepreneur and inventor Gregory Olsen was the featured speaker at the IEEE Foundation’s Global Leaders Series, which launched in February at the Union League Club, in New York City. I was invited, along with more than 20 IEEE leaders, members, and IEEE student members, to hear about Olsen’s adventures aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-7 space capsule. Olsen also signed copies of his biography, By Any Means Necessary!

The Global Leaders Series showcases prominent IEEE members to help the Foundation promote its educational and humanitarian programs, particularly its priority initiatives: IEEE Smart Village, Engineering Projects in Community Service in IEEE (EPICS in IEEE), the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s Scholarship Plus Initiative, and REACH (Raising Engineering Awareness Through the Conduit of History). The Foundation is seeking to raise US $30 million in donations this year, according to Karen Galuchie, its executive director. Among those attending were some of the Foundation’s top donors, as well as recipients of PES scholarships and students who belong to IEEE–Eta Kappa Nu, the organization’s honor society.

“Through activities like the Global Leaders Series, the IEEE Foundation is heading this special fundraising campaign, tapping into IEEE’s expansive network to raise awareness, forge partnerships, and generate the needed financial resources to fund our priority initiatives,” Galuchie says.

It’s no surprise that Olsen, a vocal supporter of IEEE, was asked to kick off the series. “I’m a professional networker,” he says, “and IEEE is a great place to meet others.”


Olsen long dreamed of being a space traveler, and on 1 October 2005 he got his chance. Then 60, he became the world’s third private citizen to take a trip into space. But first he had to overcome health issues, months of waiting for the Russian medical committee to clear him to fly, and 900 hours of training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, in Star City, just outside of Moscow.

He went up with NASA astronaut Bill McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev. During his 10 days in space, Olsen conducted medical and scientific experiments for the European Space Agency, orbited the Earth more than 150 times, and logged almost 646,000 kilometers of weightless travel.

“The best thing about weightlessness was losing my fear of heights,” he says. “It took three days to feel back to normal after reentry to Earth.” The Russian capsule Olsen used is on display in the Space Shuttle Pavilion at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, in New York City.

He paid US $20 million for the privilege of traveling to space. The physicist and engineer says he could afford the trip after selling two optoelectronics companies he helped create. In 1984 he left RCA to help found Epitaxx, a company in Trenton, N.J., that made detectors for fiber-optic communication systems. Optical communication company Nippon Sheet Glass of Edison, N.J., acquired the privately held Epitaxx for $12 million in 1990. A year later, back in Princeton, Olsen helped found Sensors Unlimited to make near-infrared cameras. That company was purchased in 2000 for $600 million by Finisar Corp., a manufacturer of optical communication components and subsystems in Sunnyvale, Calif. Olsen bought Sensors Unlimited back in 2002 for $6 million and resold it in 2005 for $60 million to Goodrich of Charlotte, N.C.

Today Olsen is president of GHO Ventures, an angel investment firm in Princeton, N.J., that has funded 10 companies.

He also gives talks at schools to encourage children—especially girls and those from underrepresented groups—to consider careers in science and engineering. He describes how he transformed from an underachieving juvenile delinquent who almost didn’t get into college to a scientist with a Ph.D. and 12 electronics patents.

“When you understand where I came from and who I was, you have to conclude that anyone has a chance to live their dreams,” he says. “Most people who knew me as a kid wouldn’t have tabbed me as someone destined for success.”

Also speaking as part of the Global Leaders Series is IEEE Fellow Bradford Parkinson, the inventor and chief architect of the Global Positioning System. More Global Leaders Series events are scheduled to be held throughout the United States.

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